In American cooking, paprika seems to be used more as a food coloring than as a spice. Sprinkled over deviled eggs and potato salads, it looks pretty and doesn’t taste like much. But heat it gently in oil and this shy spice blossoms, exuding a sweet flavor with rich earthy undertones and a heat level that ranges from gentle to spicy-hot, depending on the variety of paprika.
Two distinctive styles
Ground from dried chiles, paprika plays an honored role in both Hungarian and Spanish cuisines. Each country has a distinctive style of paprika, both of which are generally better than the generic paprika found in supermarkets.
Hungarian paprika is produced around the southern cities of Szeged and Kalosca. Traditionally, the ripened chiles were strung up to dry in the sun, but they are now more commonly dried in commercial ovens. Hungarian paprika is available in several heat levels and grinds, including special, mild, delikatess, semisweet, sweet, and hot, but only the latter two are commonly found in the United States. Used in foods like kielbasa, chicken paprikás, and goulash, Hungarian paprika is especially good in rich dishes with sour cream, potatoes, egg noodles, cabbage, or meat. It can be used generously—think tablespoons.
Spanish paprika or pimentón comes from western Spain’s La Vera valley. It differs from Hungarian paprika in that the chiles are dried over smoldering oak logs, giving them a smoky flavor. It comes in three heat levels: dulce, agridulce, and picante (sweet, bittersweet, and hot). It’s a key ingredient in paella, chorizo, and many tapas dishes. In the United States, pimentón isn’t as commonly available as Hungarian paprika, but it’s well worth seeking out (see Where To Find It, p. 80). Add a little pimentón to scrambled eggs, black-bean chili, or roasted potatoes. It’s delicious wherever you’d like a smoky flavor, but remember that smokiness can easily overwhelm a dish, so start experimenting by using only 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon.
Buying and cooking
Look for paprika packaged in a tin with a tightfitting lid and store it away from light and heat. Heating it in a little oil or butter helps bring out the flavor, but because of the high sugar content, it burns easily, so keep the heat low and the time short. It’s usually best to add it off the heat at the end of sautéing, before adding liquids.