Depending on when you were born and how much TV your parents let you watch, your first introduction to paprika might have been through the Nick Jr. show Blue’s Clues. Born to Mr. Salt and Mrs. Pepper (so glad she kept her name), this baby spice was the youngest member of the Blue’s Clues household until her brother Cinnamon was born.
If you didn’t watch Blue’s Clues, your first encounter with paprika was probably on a deviled egg. In fact, until I was in my 20s, those were the only two places I had encountered the brick red spice. I took a lot of my early cooking cues from my grandmother, a woman who leaned heavily on butter and bacon fat, and whose spice rack was stocked with salt, pepper, garlic salt, and a pill bottle filled with saccharin tablets. But paprika is far more that the finishing touch for deviled eggs. The rusty red powder contains multitudes (of peppers) and can taste sweet, smoky, or downright hot, depending on where it comes from and which peppers it’s made with.
Paprika is made from a mixture of dried ground red peppers including—but not limited to—cayenne, Aleppo, poblano, and sweet peppers. Paprika can be categorized by flavor, region, or a mixture of the two. If you’re shopping for paprika in a grocery store in the United States, you’ll most likely find three main types of paprika—sweet, smoked, and hot—but you could also run into Hungarian paprika (a topic which can get very complex nuanced) and Spanish paprika (pimenton).
Sweet paprika is the most common. It’s the stuff you’ll find on deviled eggs and potato salad, and has a mild, fruity, slightly pungent and bitter flavor, with no discernible heat. You can use a good bit of it without overpowering the other flavors in a dish, and it brings a beautiful red hue to everything you incorporate it into. It’s good in goulash, and it’s good in meaty stews.
Hot paprika is just that—paprika that has been made with spicy peppers. It’s not as hot as pure cayenne, but it can pack a punch, particularly if—like me—you grew up in eating the deviled egg variety. Use it when you want a bit of fruity, pungent heat. I like it on grilled shrimp and sprinkled into creamy dips.
Smoked paprika is also what it sounds like: It’s made with peppers that have been dried and smoked over oak, and it’s a good ingredient to use if you want to give your food a smoked flavor without actually smoking anything. It’s often called “Spanish paprika” or “pimenton,” but true pimenton is made using traditional techniques from specific regions in Spain. Not all smoked paprika is Spanish, and not all Spanish paprika is smoked—you can purchase Hungarian smoked paprika, for example, or Spanish paprika that has been sun-dried or dried in kilns. Heat-wise, smoked paprika can be mild (pimentón dulce), medium (pimentón agridulce), or hot (pimentón picante).
Paprika is the national spice of Hungary, and they take it seriously. A quick look at the paprika Wikipedia page tells us that there are eight different grades of Hungarian paprika, including “Édesnemes (noble sweet),” “csípős csemege, pikáns (pungent exquisite delicate),” and “erős (strong).” If you live in the U.S., it’s unlikely you will be able to collect all eight. Most Hungarian Paprika sold in the U.S. is Édesnemes, which is rich and sweet, without much heat. If you’re looking for a high-quality, all-purpose paprika, Hungarian sweet is the way to go.
I could list a whole bunch of dishes to make with sweet, smoked, and hot paprika, but I prefer a less didactic approach. Though each type of paprika has its traditional uses, there is no law saying you can’t choose to go wild and use smoked paprika in a recipe that calls for sweet, or sprinkle hot paprika on on your potato salad. I always have Hungarian sweet and pimentón agridulce on hand, and use them interchangeably, depending on my mood. (The smoky stuff is outstanding on deviled eggs.)
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