Spicelight: Paprika

Paprika is as delicious as it is vibrant. The spice carries sweet, earthy, smokey, piquant, slightly bitter, and fiery flavors. Too often we find ourselves reaching for paprika as a splash of color for our food. Ask our spice merchants and they’ll even admit they used to as well before working here. Key words: Used to.

Paprika is a red-orange powder made from ripe, red chile peppers of the species Capsicum annuum, and are traditionally sun-dried or smoked. There are five major species of chile peppers, and the annuum species is home to sweet bell peppers, paprika peppers, jalapeños, and cayenne. Out of the hundreds of paprikas on the market, we carry six different varieties. Each one that we offer is selected at the highest quality and freshness, from their top country of origin.

Hungarian paprika peppers are often long and pointy while the Spanish paprika peppers can be stout and bell shaped. Hungarian Paprika is typically non-smoked—beautifully strung up in garlands and cured for weeks before a final dry in the sun. Paprikas are masterfully ground at mills close to where they are cultivated. Experienced millers will grind and blend harvests from different farms from across the region to ensure a consistent product year after year.

Spanish paprika is predominantly smoked. The best Spanish paprika comes from the La Vera region of Spain, 100 miles west of Madrid. In La Vera, they smoke the paprika peppers slowly over burning oak logs, turning them by hand until they are dry. You’ll notice some of our labels for Spanish paprika say, “Pimiento de la Vera Picante,” or, “Dulce.” This is Spanish for, “sweet or hot pepper from La Vera.”

In the spice biz, when we call a spice sweet, we mean it is not hot. Like Sweet Curry versus Hot Curry. Sweet paprikas are made when the pepper’s inner seed veins are removed before processing. Those veins are where the capsaicin is stored, the chemical responsible for all chile peppers’ heat.

While chile peppers have been consumed and cultivated by humans for over 6,000 years, Paprika became popular in Hungary only after the 18th century. Columbus was one of the first people from all of Europe, Africa, and Asia to encounter chile peppers. It is believed the Spanish introduced Turkish traders to paprika, and the Turks then introduced Hungarians to their favorite spice.

Hungarians are the runaway heroes of paprika. The word, “paprika,” is Hungarian for pepper. Their cuisine is rich with paprika, and many folks there use it in place of black pepper at the table. Paprika is often the first thing in the frying pan alongside chopped onion, oil, or butter. If you want to make real Goulash, or “Gulyás” you need good Hungarian paprika. Paprikash is another dish that requires delicious, fresh paprika. It is a meat dish served in a gravy made from broth, paprika, and sour cream. Our Evanston Manager, Chasity Marini, makes a mean Chicken Paprikash.

Heat releases the paprika’s flavor. Try cooking it with some simple mushrooms and onions. Fry the paprika gently in olive oil before tossing in the veggies. Be careful not to overcook or burn the paprika. Too much heat will bring out its bitter notes.

Buy your paprika fresh and often. Store it in a cool, dry place away from light. Exposure to light will fade its color and weaken the flavor. The intense reddish hue in paprika is due to the high presence of carotene, just like a carrot. Paprika also contains more vitamin C per weight than oranges do.

Hungarians also created one of the first complex grading systems for paprika. They have eight different grades. Today we rely on the American Spice Trade Association’s grading system. See what Spice House owner and “Spice Boss”, Tom Erd, wrote about that here. The American system bases grades on color, where the Hungarian system is far more detailed and judges by flavor and smell.

We encourage you to choose based on your favorite tastes and aromas. Fresh paprika adds a richness to sauces, homemade sausages, soups, barbecue rubs, and rice dishes.

If you’d like to know more about paprika or have questions, visit one of our stores or email us at spices@spicehouse.com. Got your own mean recipe for Goulash? Share it with us, and we’ll feature you on our website. Happy cooking!


Geoff Marshall is Web Content Manager at the Spice House. He loves writing stories and recipes for the blog. When he’s not nose deep in one of Tom and Patty’s many spice encyclopedias, you’ll find him daydreaming of dinner prep or riding his bicycle.

 

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