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Exploring Paprika: How to Use the "New World" Spice

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Paprika is more than just a pretty face, and it’s not a one-dimensional flavor.

Paprika is more than just a pretty face, and it’s not a one-dimensional flavor.

Is It in Your Spice Rack?

When you hear the word "paprika," what do you think of? A rich and satisfying bowl of Hungarian goulash? Maybe zesty chicken paprikash? Perhaps paprika is nothing more than that red garnish atop a plate of deviled eggs or the potluck potato salad. Or maybe, you don’t think of (or use) paprika at all.

What a pity.

Paprika is more than just a pretty face, and it’s not a one-dimensional flavor. The taste of it can range from sweet to smoky to earthy and spicy. A member of the pepper family (Capsicum annuum), paprika is dried and ground into a powder from not one, but a wide variety of pepper plants, thus the broad range of flavor profiles.

Paprika ... has become one of the most consumed spice products in the world because of its importance in spice blends, including rubs, marinades, and seasoned salts.

— "The Homestead Garden"

This Isn't Your Typical "Spice" Story

Black pepper, nutmeg, cloves, mace—these spices had a long and somewhat tragic history. They grew and were discovered in the Far East, in isolated tropical areas. Exotic, rare, and costly, they were valued more than gold. Battles were waged over them, blood was spilled for them.

And then there is paprika. It originated in the West, not the East. The native peoples of Mexico, Central America, and the Antilles used it for cooking and they recognized its healing properties.

It was Christopher Columbus who “discovered” paprika. How ironic; Columbus was in search of a new route to the Spice Islands of the East; he failed in that endeavor but made new discoveries that he then transported from West to East—corn, potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, chocolate, squash, and peppers ... including paprika.

The 5 stages of the paprika fruit

The 5 stages of the paprika fruit

Columbus misnamed them pimiento, Spanish for the hot spice gleaned from peppercorns. For some time they were used for ornamental rather than culinary purposes. In time they were transported from the Iberian Peninsula to Africa and Asia. But how did paprika become “the spice” of Hungary? If you look at a map, you will see that Hungary is landlocked, so it would not have been a port-of-call for Spanish traders. One might say that paprika entered Hungary through the back door.

As the Roman Empire was slowly imploding, the Ottoman Empire was gaining control of much of southeastern Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa. The control by the Ottomans also meant control of the trade routes.

They traded amongst other things, decorative plants, like tulips to the Netherlands and no doubt must have picked up a paprika plant or two from royal courts on the continent during trade expeditions. So taken aback by this spice were they, the Ottomans took it wherever they went to season their food; they used it particularly when invading Europe—countries like Bulgaria, Bosnia Croatia, Serbia and most importantly, Hungary.

— Nick Paul,TravelStart.Com, South Africa (7 September 2010)

Is All Paprika Hungarian?

  • Sweet paprika
  • Hungarian paprika
  • Smoked paprika
  • Mild paprika
  • Hot paprika

It's all so confusing. They are not all the same. I'll explain.

“Regular” Paprika

Most of what is sold in grocery stores simply as “paprika” is more decorative than functional. There’s no heat (pepperiness) nor is there any discernable sweetness. Save this one for garnishing. If you want to cook with paprika, keep reading.

Hungarian Paprika

Is this the national spice of Hungary? Perhaps. Just as New Englanders grade their maple syrup by color and intensity of flavor, Hungarian paprikas vary as well. They are not a ‘one-size-fits-all' sort of spice. There are actually eight grades of Hungarian paprika:

  • különleges (mild and the most vibrant red)
  • csípősmentes csemege (delicate and mild)
  • csemege paprika (similar to the previous but more pungent)
  • csípős csemege (even more pungent)
  • édesnemes (slightly pungent and bright red)
  • félédes (semi-sweet with medium pungency)
  • rózsa (mildly pungent and pale red)
  • erős (hottest and light brown to orange)

Most of what is sold in the U.S. as Hungarian paprika is the édesnemes variety.

Spanish smoked paprika, or pimentón

All other paprikas are slowly dried in the sun. However, Spanish paprika is dried over a fire, imparting a rich smoky flavor and a deeper mahogany color. Right now this is my absolute favorite type of paprika. My daughter is a vegetarian and won't eat bacon, so smoked paprika gives us that smoky-sweet flavor without sacrificing a pig.

And that brings me to why we're really here (and why, I assume you are reading). Bring on the recipes.

Recipes in This Article

  • Paprika chicken with rice
  • Paprika chicken casserole
  • Smoky tomato lentil soup
  • Carb Diva's goulash soup
  • Pork with paprika, mushrooms, and sour cream
  • Carb Diva's earthy mushroom stew
  • Romesco sauce
Paprika chicken with rice

Paprika chicken with rice

Paprika Chicken With Rice

This recipe is almost ridiculous. How can something so simple be so tasty? Less is more. Quality over quantity. Occam's Razor.

With just diced chicken breast, salt, pepper, lemon juice and (the magic ingredient) paprika, FamilyFoodOnTheTable produces a wonderful main dish for your family. Couscous, white or brown rice, or zucchini "noodles" would be a great accompaniment. Fresh veggies or a side salad and you have a healthy meal in less than half an hour.

Paprika chicken casserole

Paprika chicken casserole

Paprika Chicken Casserole

I found the blog FeedingAndy through Pinterest, and glad that I did. Peggy creates wonderful dishes using ingredients I find quite often in my own rotation (seafood, chicken, soups, and pasta). Her paprika-chicken casserole is full of flavor, with egg noodles (yum!) and a silky sauce redolent with paprika.

Smoky tomato lentil soup

Smoky tomato lentil soup

Smoky Tomato and Lentil Soup

Kaitlin's smoky tomato lentil soup is comfort in a bowl. This hearty meal is colorful, packed with flavor, filling, rich in fiber and antioxidants, and (bonus points) it's vegan.

Goulash soup

Goulash soup

Goulash Soup

This recipe has been in my recipe box forever. No, it's not vegetarian. Beef is cut into cubes and combined with lots of onions, shredded potatoes, and beef broth. The shredded potatoes melt into the broth, thickening it without the use of cream or cornstarch. When the beef is tender, stir in diced potatoes and uncooked noodles and let them simmer until cooked to perfection.

Pork with paprika, mushrooms, and sour cream

Pork with paprika, mushrooms, and sour cream

Pork With Paprika, Mushrooms, and Sour Cream

This rich stew of braised cubes of pork and mushrooms is cloaked with a creamy savory sauce of Hungarian paprika and sour cream. I love to serve it over mashed potatoes or noodles, but for a carb-less option riced cauliflower would be good too.

Earthy mushroom stew

Earthy mushroom stew

Earthy Mushroom Stew

My recipe for earthy mushroom stew is an adaptation of a recipe that was originally published in the October 2006 issue of Sunset Magazine. Smoked paprika and tomato paste work together to provide a rich umami (meaty) flavor to this vegetarian dish.

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter, unsalted
  • 1 cup yellow onion, minced
  • 5 cups mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 2 cups russet potato, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1 cup wide noodles (I used No Yolk egg noodles)
  • 3 cups mushroom broth* (see note below)

Instructions

  1. Place olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add butter. When butter is melted toss in onion; cook about 5 minutes or until soft and beginning to color slightly. Add sliced mushrooms and cook until mushrooms are browned—about 5 minutes more. Stir in paprika and tomato paste. Cook for about 2 minutes to meld flavors and remove from heat. Set aside.
  2. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add diced potatoes; cook for 10 minutes and then remove with a skimmer and set aside. In the same saucepan cook the noodles according to the package directions. Remove with a skimmer and set aside.
  3. Reserve 2 cups of cooking liquid from the saucepan and set aside.
  4. Place the mushroom broth in the saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Stir in the reserved potatoes, noodles, 2 cups reserved cooking liquid, and onion/mushroom mixture. Simmer until heated—about 5 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.
  5. * I used creamy portabello, but you could use vegetable broth, or (if you aren't worried about creating a vegetarian meal) chicken or beef broth.
Romesco sauce

Romesco sauce

Romesco Sauce

I was recently introduced to romesco sauce. I just stumbled upon the name while I was surfing the net (probably Pinterest). It looked good (the photo), the ingredients sounded interesting, and I had all of the ingredients on hand, so I gave it a whirl. Literally. I used a food processor. And I found that (1) romesco sauce tastes amazing and (2) but I was saddened to recognize all of the many years, yea decades, I had lived without it.

Romesco sauce goes with so many things. I love it as a dip for chips, veggies, or whatever. Smear it on cooked chicken. Serve it alongside cooked shrimp. Spread it on crostini. I might even give up dessert for an extra portion of romesco. Trust me, it's that good!

© 2018 Linda Lum