Travel through Hungary, from the smallest villages to the grand space of Budapest, and you can’t wet your appetite without seeing paprika somewhere in the mix. This mysterious red powder is a common staple to their cuisine. Even more it’s also known to most of Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe.
For most of you, I’m sure your paprika experiences have been more passing through the spice aisle in your local grocer, perhaps curious about what you would use it for. That or you might even have some in your cupboard, collecting dust and never used. Let’s change that.
What exactly is paprika?
I’ll first disparage one big misconception on this seasoning. Paprika is not red pepper, cayenne pepper, or chili powder. Granted they are all made from grinding dried peppers, the type of pepper used is what differentiates one spice from the next.
Cayenne pepper is its own beast, as is chili powder. Each have their own specific pepper used. Red pepper is more a mixture from different hot peppers. Paprika though comes from a more longer variation of bell peppers. If you shop in most European markets you’ll notice the peppers aren’t short and fat the way we see in America, but longer and bigger than your average chili pepper or jalape?o.
These peppers are grown to full ripeness, where they take on an interesting color metamorphosis of green to dark brown to the beautiful red we know paprika for. The peppers are cultivated, then either laid out or strung up to dry. The finished product comes from grinding the dried flesh of those peppers. The level of heat found in the varieties of paprika comes from how much of the pepper seeds are used in the mix.
Where it came from
While paprika is mainly known to Hungary, this is only because the Hungarians (and their former Turkish rulers) had taken great investment in the growth and manufacture of the seasoning. While many theories of how paprika came to Hungary float about, most of them start with Columbus’ return to Europe from his exploration of North America.
Columbus returned to Spain with many new fruits and vegetables never known to Europe. One of them was the bell pepper known to North and Central America. While this could explain Spanish paprika, there have also been stories of peppers coming from India through the Middle East and into Europe during the 17th Century via the Ottoman Empire.
The stories of the Turkish pepper empire spoke of paprika plants grown in the courtyards of royalty and kept under strict guard, with peasants daring to grow the plants facing execution. Regardless of this oppression, it didn’t stop the pepper plants from sprouting all over Central and Southern Europe. In 1879, French chef Auguste Escoffier introduced paprika to western European cuisine after bringing some from Hungary to Monte Carlo. Since then it’s been a viral spread throughout the continent.
Buying and using paprika
By this point you might be curious to try using paprika, if you haven’t done so already in your life. Buying the spice can be daunting when you are open to the variety of choices. The key difference between varieties is usually the amount of heat you’ll find. Paprika can go from slightly sweet to utterly hot, and if you toss in smoked paprika, then you’re facing plenty of choices at your disposal.
If you’re completely unsure on what to buy, then just go with the more general run-of-the-mill kind of paprika you’ll probably encounter most of the time. Usually this one will taste more bland in terms of not really sweet, but not really hot. This variety is generally good in most circumstances. It really comes down to your palette and of the palettes of those you are cooking for. Many lovers of paprika will have several varieties in their arsenal.
When it comes to using paprika, I’d first tell you to avoid direct heat if you’re looking to unlock the flavor. A good suggestion I’ve heard was to pull your pan off the stove and add the paprika, not returning the pan to the heat until it has dissolved in the liquids. If color is your only goal, then add it to direct heat. Paprika has a high sugar content, so it will caramelize and thus lose its flavor on direct heat. Sprinkling a little pinch on pale-colored dishes can add a beauty to the final result. Try sprinkling some on baked or broiled chicken and you’ll see what I mean.
In many Central European dishes paprika is used in teaspoons and tablespoons, rather than pinches and sprinklings. Venturing through countries such as Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Poland you’ll see paprika share space on the table alongside salt and pepper. Paprika has also become very popular in spice rubs either to add heat or just color.
Ready to try paprika? Here’s a handful of recipes that utilize this seasoning: