Spices 101: What is Paprika?
So, a common theme you see here on PCFG is that a lot of so-called “fancy” foods, aren’t actually all that fancy when you dissect them and figure out just what the hell they are. Paprika is a big, big offender of that notion, since it seems like half the population of Earth has heard of it, but doesn’t really know what it is. It’s just some sort of mysterious, fancy-pants seasoning that they sprinkle on your dish at the end of cooking, and it probably costs a billion dollars. Fortunately, most of that is false (though it is frequently sprinkled onto plates as a garnish).
Origin: South America
Appearance: Fine, red powder
Scent: Peppery, fruity, earthy
Taste: Dark, sweet, pungent
Foods: Hungarian, Italian, Spanish, Latino
Interestingly enough, while I had a pretty good understanding of paprika and how it’s made, when I did a little research for this article, I did figure out the following: paprika is actually pretty frigging confusing.
See, here’s the thing. Paprika from a technical perspective is simply a powder made out of dried chili peppers, with the seeds removed. For all the pepper fans out there, you’re probably sitting there thinking “But wait, there’s like hundreds of chili peppers…” And that’s correct. As far as paprika goes, there’s no one pepper used to make it. Except, well, there is, if it’s Spanish paprika.
So there’s different variations of paprika. There’s regular, run-of-the-mill, who-gives-a-damn paprika. This could be made by virtually any chili pepper, though for it to be true paprika, they must be a red variety. After this, you’ve got Hungarian paprika, which is made from special peppers only grown in Hungary, which is supposed to be a little spicier and more pungent/rich in flavor. (Of note, if Wikipedia is anything to go by, apparently Hungary is really up its own ass about paprika.) Lastly, there’s Spanish paprika which is made from the pimiento pepper, AKA those little red peppers you see chopped up in pimento cheese or inside of green olives. This variety is usually sweet and subtle since pimiento peppers are very, very mild.
To make things more confusing, Hungary also has its own pretentious system in place for paprikas, labeling them as terms which range from “rose” to “exquisite delicate” to “noble sweet” and others. Annnd to round it all off, there’s also various grades of paprika too, depending on how the paprika was processed, which reflects on its spiciness (i.e. how much of the seeds and inner flesh were used). So you may see “sweet” paprika, “spicy” paprika, or “extra-strength” paprika at your local supermarket. Honestly, for 99% of your cooking, just use regular paprika; don’t worry about buying spicy or noble or whatever the hell. The flavors will be so similar when used as an ingredient in cooking, it’s not going to matter, unless you’re making something really specific like the Hungarian gravy ‘paprikash’.
As mentioned, it’s also often used as a garnish, sprinkled onto foods right before they’re served. This is in part due to the fact it has a pretty subtle flavor compared to other seasonings, but also because it’s naturally bright red and looks really nice on plates that need some color. That brings me to my next point: dyeing.
Another fun use for paprika is that it makes for a really neat, natural dye for various crafts. You can use it to dye yarn, ink, or as we’ve covered before, Easter Eggs! In its pure state, paprika is straight red. However, be aware that when used as dye, it gives off more of a red-orange color.
To tie it all together, one of the best parts about paprika is that it’s easy to find and very affordable. So while yes, it seems like it’s really ritzy, and yes you might think it’s a pain in the ass and yes it’s sort of confusing when you deal in the nitty-gritty of it, but as a whole, paprika is an everyman’s spice with nothing for you to be intimidated by. It’s used in a lot of dishes and it’s a useful little spice that you should make sure to keep stocked at all times.