I used to see just paprika sold in stores, but lately I notice several kinds. What is the difference and can they be used interchangeably?
Craig Henderson, Reno, NV
Depending on whether you’re standing in an American supermarket or in a field of paprika peppers in Hungary, you’ll get widely varied answers as to how many different versions of paprika are produced—from as few as six to more than thirty. The variety ranges over a sliding scale of sweet to pleasantly bitter, mild to hot, and even to specially smoked versions.
You are correct that suppliers are being more liberal in their offerings, but in fact, most quality paprika is produced from a narrow range of chile peppers harvested in a handful of regions. The difference comes from how those chiles are grown, harvested, and processed. If your spice rack has room for only one, I say stock up on a high-quality sweet Hungarian version. An added luxury would be a smoked sweet paprika, called pimentón dulce, from Spain.
Substitutions are generally acceptable but you should keep in mind the relative heat, smoke, and pungency. A recipe calling for Hungarian sweet paprika will taste very different if you substitute pimentón, but the results could be equally tasty.