What Is Paprika? How Do You Cook With It and Use It?
Paprika is made of ground bell peppers. It may or may not also include ground chili peppers.
What Is Paprika?
In many languages, especially those of European descent, the word "paprika" refers to bell peppers themselves. However, in many languages, "paprika" is also a spice! The spice is made by grinding up bell peppers and/or chili peppers. It can be made exclusively of bell peppers, but it is often a combination of bell peppers and chilis. That's why it's important to read the label when purchasing it. Paprika's heat can range from mild (not very spicy) to hot (very spicy). And as such, the seasoning adds both color and flavor to dishes.
Sweet peppers, yet another name for bell peppers, are plump, bell-shaped vegetables featuring either three or four lobes. A general rule of thumb, those with three lobes on the bottom are sweeter and better for eating raw, on salads, in sandwiches, or as crunchy snacks. Those with four lobes tend to be firmer and better suited for cooking. Many cooks (myself included) do not bother to look.
Red, yellow, and green are most common bell pepper types, and their color is often a reflection of their maturity. Green ones are the least ripe. Red ones are fully ripe. Bells are available throughout the year, but their peak season is from August to September.
Fun fact: Zoo flamingos' diets are supplemented with paprika so that they stay brilliantly pink.
How Do I Use and Cook With Paprika?
The Spice's Notable Perks
- Lots of Vitamin C: Paprika is unusually high in vitamin C. The peppers used for to create it often contain six to nine times as much vitamin C as tomatoes by weight. High heat destroys the peppers' vitamins. For optimum nutrition, grow and dry your own in the sun.
- Promotes Well-Being: As an antibacterial agent and stimulant, paprika can help normalize blood pressure, improve circulation, and increase the production of saliva and stomach acids, which aids digestion.
Using Paprika in the Kitchen:
- Add a Pop of Color: Paprika's rich coloring enhances the visual appeal of food. This spice makes a great garnish. Use it to top macaroni, chicken, or soup. A light dash of paprika also makes deviled eggs and potato salad more appealing. It adds color and interest without overwhelming the dish's flavor.
- Spanish Vs. Hungarian Paprika: Know that when a recipe calls for Hungarian paprika, you'll need to find a mild, sweet variety, preferably an imported version that's actually from Hungary. Spanish paprika tastes different and tends to be much spicier.
- Savor the Flavor: Paprika goes well with just about any savory food, including eggs, meat, poultry, stew, wild game, fish, shellfish, soup, boiled and steamed vegetables, rice, and creamy sauces. For most recipes, the paprika is added near the end of the cooking process, since heat diminishes both the color and flavor.
- Batter Up: When preparing a batter for fried chicken, in addition to salt and black pepper, I reach for paprika. The dark red specks make for an interesting and colorful end result.
Storage: Paprika should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, preferably the refrigerator. You'll want to protect it from light. Use it or replace it within six months for the best flavor.
Buyer beware: This spice is available in mild and hot versions. Read the ingredients closely to know what you're getting.
A Brief History of Bell Peppers
Bell peppers likely originated in Mexico. They are a member of the nightshade family, which also includes potatoes and tomatoes. Christopher Columbus is credited with bringing the chili to Europe. Aristocrats originally cultivated capsicum (yet another name for peppers) as ornamental plants until cooks eventually the vegetable's culinary value. By the 1560s, these peppers had reached the Balkans where they were called "peperke" or "paparka." The peppers soon migrated to Hungary, now renowned for its paprika. Goulash, anyone?
It wasn't until the mid-1900s that paprika stepped into the limelight of Western kitchens. Spain, South America, Mediterranean regions, India, and California joined Hungary as major paprika producers. It's used as a coloring agent in foods and cosmetics. Its inclusion in foods fed to zoo flamingos help them keep their pink plumage bright and beautiful.