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What is paprika and how is it used?

This spice-cabinet staple is often overlooked in the U.S. but is prized in Hungarian and Spanish cuisines.
What's the difference between sweet, hot and smoked paprika?
What's the difference between sweet, hot and smoked paprika?Alamy

Just saying the word "paprika" inspires joy, and the crimson hue seconds that emotion. This spice-cabinet staple is often overlooked in the U.S. but is prized in Hungarian and Spanish cuisines. Paprika is a spice made from dried, ground peppers. It’s mild-flavored and typically made from a combination of peppers that have less capsaicin, which is the compound that adds heat and pungency.

There are three types of paprika, each with distinct characteristics:

Sweet paprika: This is the common spice you find in the grocery store, often simply labeled "paprika." The variety has a mild, sweet pepper flavor (like red bell peppers without the pungency) and is a great addition to dishes that may otherwise be spicy, as it will help create balance.

Hot paprika: This is the high-quality Hungarian variety of paprika and is one of the primary flavor drivers of Hungarian cuisine. It’s an important ingredient in goulash, a beef and onion stew, and chicken paprikash, which features a creamy paprika-based sauce. As you’d guess, hot paprika does add a spicy warmth. If you really want to get into it, there are actually eight grades of Hungarian paprika, ranging in levels of spiciness.

Beef Goulash

Beef Goulash

Eric Ripert

Smoked paprika: This variety, also called pimentón, is made from a combination of peppers that are dried and oak-smoked. It is a staple of Spanish cuisine — think smoky pulpo (octopus) and patatas bravas (spicy potatoes). Again, as the name suggests, smoked paprika does add a rich, smoky flavor that is frankly quite addictive, but it usually does not add any heat (you may be able to find hot smoked paprika which will add both heat and smoke).

While you can certainly swap any one into recipes that call for another variety, say using sweet paprika instead of hot paprika, note that it will change the way your dish tastes — especially when you use smoked paprika.

How to cook with paprika

Paprika’s gorgeous color adds a pop to any dish when sprinkled on as a finishing spice; think on top of scrambled eggs or on roasted potatoes. A spoon of paprika is also great for adding flavor to soups and stews, rice dishes, meat and vegetables.

Shakshuka

Shakshuka

Ayesha Nurdjaja

When using during cooking, you can just add paprika to the mixing bowl or soup pot, however, as with many spices, paprika benefits from blooming in fat — which simply means heating some oil in a pan, adding the spice and letting it cook for a minute or so. Just be careful to stay by the pan and avoid burning the paprika, which can quickly become bitter if overcooked. (And if you do burn it? Don’t try to save it. Throw it out and start over so it doesn’t ruin your dish.) Blooming brings out the full flavor of paprika, in turn helping to make your dish shine.

Sheet-Pan Chicken with Jammy Tomatoes and Pancetta

Hot paprika is the go to for any Hungarian or Hungarian-inspired dishes and can also sub in for other spicy ground peppers, like Aleppo pepper or chile powder.

Smoked paprika is great for adding that smoky flavor to any dish, but particularly useful for vegans and vegetarians. Add it to collard greens when you’re skipping the smoked turkey or ham hocks, for example, or to add more depth of flavor to vegan mac and cheese. For omnivores, it’s a great addition to marinades and rubs, especially when you want that hot off the grill flavor sans grilling.

Vegan Taco Mac and Cheese

You’ve probably got a jar of paprika that you forgot about sitting at the back of your spice cabinet. While I’d love to tell you to dust it off and use it, spices more than six months old lose their flavor. Buy a new jar, keep it where you can see it and start adding it into your favorite dishes!