Plain, smoked, sweet, hot: You’ve no doubt come across these terms when shopping for paprika or using this ubiquitous red spice in a recipe. Let’s break it down.
Paprika, found everywhere from deviled eggs to chorizo, is made from dried red peppers and comes in two styles: plain and smoked. Both plain and smoked paprika are available in sweet and hot versions. Whether it packs heat or sweet depends on the variety of pepper used and whether the seeds were removed. That’s the first thing you need to know. The second? These varieties taste quite different, so it’s important to use the kind your recipe calls for. (See below for a collection of our top paprika recipes.)
Hungarian vs. Spanish Paprika
Though paprika originated in Latin America, the best-known sources of plain paprika are Hungary and Spain, and Spain also produces a lot of smoked paprika. Spanish paprika is known as pimentón (more on pimentón below), and if you’re buying pimentón outside of Spain, it’s most likely the smoked variety.
The national spice of Hungary, paprika shows up in all manner of Hungarian dishes, from goulash to chicken paprikash and even desserts. Hungarian paprika comes from sweet red peppers and imparts a rich, fruity quality and bright hue to recipes. While we typically see sweet Hungarian paprika here in the states, various heat levels are available in Hungary, ranging from mild to pungent to hot.
Pimentón: Spanish Paprika
Pimentón is a critical ingredient in Spanish dishes like paella and most often refers to smoked paprika. You’ll often find smoked paprika sprinkled as a finisher on tomato salad or grilled octopus. The best smoked variety is Pimentón de la Vera. Produced only in the La Vera region of Spain, it is regarded as the finest quality and is a protected designation of origin, similar to Camembert cheese and prosciutto di Parma. To make it, peppers of varying heat are harvested in September and slow-dried at around 95°F over smoldering oak logs for about two weeks before they’re pulverized. The red powder carries an intense, penetrating flavor and smoky aroma that comes in three levels: “dulce” for the mildly sweet, “picante” for spicy and “agridulce” for a combination. Agridulce is what gives chorizo its kick.
How to Use Paprika
Here at Milk Street, we typically use sweet paprika, choosing to add a few red pepper flakes or cayenne to ratchet up the heat if the dish needs it. We’ll use it in a rub for roasted chicken, as in our Piri Piri Chicken Thighs, or pork, like our Paprika-Rubbed Pork Tenderloin. We’ll stir it into dips or sauces and use it to season bread crumbs (see our smokey, tender kale salad).
Whether you’re using plain or smoked paprika, to better release the flavor, heat in oil with garlic to make a flavorful drizzle for meat or fish. Just be careful because paprika burns easily; if it darkens in the pan, it will taste bitter.
How to Buy It
We sell our own brand of Smoked Paprika in our Milk Street Store, but when you’re looking elsewhere, Orencio Hoyo, whose father began making their Yuste 1557 paprika in La Vera 60 years ago, advises going with a brand that lists only one ingredient and comes in a tin can. Paprika goes stale fast and a tin will keep out flavor-dulling light and air. “There's a large variety of intensity of the color,” he says. “So the more color it has, the better the quality of the product.”
A good substitution for hot smoked paprika, if you can’t find it, is 1 tablespoon sweet paprika and ¼ teaspoon cayenne for 1 tablespoon hot paprika.