If we were playing a food word association game and I said "paprika," there's a good chance you might respond with Chicken Paprikash, or Beef Goulash, or maybe a platter of deviled eggs with an innocuous red dusting.
For many of us, paprika either gets stuck in an ethnic rut (quick -- can you name a Hungarian dish that doesn't include paprika?), or it's used in a Mad Men-kind of food coloring kit, sprinkled on food in the same way as you'd add a sprig of curly parsley or a curl of tomato peel -- adding visual decoration without the commitment of any actual flavor.
It's too bad. Because in fact, paprika can be complex and add not just color but also wonderful taste and personality to our cooking. But first a little background.
You Say Paprika, I Say Pimentón
There are probably as many names for paprika as there are ethnic cuisines that use it. While most famous in Hungarian and Spanish cooking, it's also found in the foods of Morocco, India, Portugal, Serbia and elsewhere, plus various cuisines of South America and the barbeque of the U.S.A.
It's grown mostly in Spain, California, South America and of course, in Hungary where paprika is a point of national pride. Hungarian paprika growers and producers specialize in the particularities of growing, drying, smoking, and grinding capsicum annuum as much as a Burgundian wine producer cultivates his pinot noir grapes on the slopes of the Saône River. In Hungary it is no ordinary spice but instead a national flavor.
Since we today live in a global kitchen, we can buy and cook with global ingredients and paprika is no exception. And no two paprikas are alike. A few things to know:
- Paprika, often also called pimentón, which is its Spanish name, is ground red bell pepper.
- This spice comes in a wide range of intensities and flavors:
Dolce -- mild and slightly sweet
Picante -- hot and spicy
De la Vera -- smoky, spicy and stone-ground, from the region west of Madrid
Agridulce -- moderately spicy, smoky and complex
Smoked -- usually it's been smoked over oak
Piment d'Espelette -- a spicy Spanish paprika from the Basque region that is smoky but miler than cayenne
Hungarian paprika is usually stronger in flavor than the milder Spanish.
- Cayenne is not paprika but they're closely related. Cayenne is made from a chili pepper that is hotter than the capsicum annuum red bell pepper. Because of cross-breeding various types of bell peppers, their flavors have somewhat faded and to give some paprikas more personality, it's been reported that spice producers will add cayenne to paprika to give it extra kick -- no doubt a less costly solution than buying a purer species of bell pepper that is still cultivated for its stronger flavor. Can you know this from the tin? Unfortunately, no.
- Within Hungarian paprikas, there are several distinctions, ranging from rare and delicate, to rose, to noble and strong. I once had the amazing experience of buying saffron in the spice souk of Istanbul, a place with a fragrance can make you swoon. But I foolishly turned my precious tin of saffron into a souvenir instead of something to cook with by hoarding it long after it had any meaningful flavor. I suspect that if I went to Budapest and scored a special Rózsa I'd probably make the same mistake.
- As for nutrition, paprika has both vitamin C and antioxidants, and while we rarely ingest enough of it to make a difference, for what it's worth, it's good for us.
And where to buy paprika? Most grocers' spice shelves will have tins of dolce and picante, which often come in fabulously decorated tins. But if you want a larger, and probably fresher, selection, go to a spice shop, like Kalustyan's in Manhattan, or an online merchant like Penzeys.
As with any spice, buy paprika at a store where the turnover is high so you can be sure what you're buying is fresh. And unless you plan to use it often and generously, buy paprika in small quantities so it doesn't fade before you cook with it.
Cooking With Paprika
So which paprika should you have on your spice shelf? Forgive the answer but of course, it depends on how you're going to cook with it and also your personal palate.
There are two ways that I most frequently cook with paprika. The first is in recipes in which I want to add both color and a subtle amount of heat. As examples, here are recipes I learned from two of my most favorite cookbooks, which are among my favorite go-to recipes for easy weeknight cooking. In each recipe I use paprika picante to add a subtle heat and beautiful color to very simple main ingredients: chicken legs and fish.
-- Oven-Roasted Rosemary and Paprika Chicken Legs
From Arthur Schwartz's The Southern Italian Table is a Sicilian way to oven roast chicken legs. Not only is this dish prepared and cooked in less than an hour, the results are so good that you might give up roasting whole chickens.
You'll need one chicken leg-thigh for each serving, 2 teaspoons hot/picante paprika or a blend of sweet paprika with a little cayenne, one sprig fresh rosemary per chicken leg, and some salt.
- Preheat the oven to 450° F.
- Using a sharp knife, slash the surface of each leg-thigh piece two or three times, depending on the size of the leg. Cut through the skin and into the meat below but not so deep to cut through the bone.
- Sprinkle each piece with a pinch of salt and both sides with the paprika. Tuck a sprig of the rosemary into the slashes.
- Arrange the chicken legs in a single layer on a rimmed sheet pan for 40 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken legs, until golden brown and completely cooked.
- Let stand for about 5 minutes before serving.
-- Broiled Swordfish With Paprika
This is a method for cooking a meaty fish like swordfish or halibut steaks that uses a grilled cast iron pan. It comes from one of my absolutely favorite cookbooks, Fish Without A Doubt by Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore. The authors credit one of their mothers for the cooking technique, which might be a generational thing because it's also how my mother cooked swordfish when I grew up.
The pan is preheated so that it cooks the fish on one side as the broiler cooks the other, eliminating any need to turn the fish. It also produces a result where the fish is cooked through but not dry as swordfish can so easily become -- making the best swordfish you'll ever have.
A cast iron grill pan is essential for this cooking method but they usually cost less than $30, will last forever, and this pan just might become, as it has for me, a kitchen essential.
3/4 pound swordfish steak (about 1-inch thick)
1 teaspoon hot/picante or smoked paprika
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- Place the empty cast iron grill pan in your cold oven on the upper rack, adjusted at the level at which you normally broil; or in your broiler unit if separate, and adjust the temperature to the level at which you normally broil.
- Turn on the broiler and let it get hot for about 10 minutes so that the empty pan beneath it becomes blazing hot.
- Meanwhile season the fish on both sides with a pinch of salt. Season one surface of the fish with the paprika, giving it When the grill pan is blazing hot, place the swordfish in it, paprika and butter side up. You'll hear a wonderful searing sound as the fish hits the hot pan.
- Broil for 5 minutes until the fish is cooked through. Serve immediately.
-- Paprika As A Rub For Slow-Cooked Meats
The other way I love to cook with paprika is as a dry rub when slow cooking pork ribs, or more recently a brisket of beef. And for these rubs I prefer a medium and smoky paprika, also called agridulce.
Since I'm a city cook, I use my oven and broiler to replicate the flavors that others get using an outdoor grill. I don't claim to reproduce barbecue, which is its own exquisite art. But nearly everyone I know with a grill has one fueled by gas and not charcoal, which means my oven/broiler combo does the exactly same thing. However, grill cooking is done outdoors, a big summertime advantage for recipes like our Slow Roasted Paprika-Rubbed Pork Ribs, which needs the oven on for 4 hours. But on a cool to cold day, it's a winning way to make ribs in a city kitchen See our link for the recipe.
Here's another winning use for agridulce paprika. A splendid recipe from The New York Times is for a paprika-rubbed brisket that is slow-roasted for 8 to 10 hours until it's falling-apart tender. Last winter I made it several times for company and it was always a gigantic hit. I'd serve it with tomato risotto and a braised green vegetable like broccoli rabe and finished the meal with a light dessert, like mango sorbet and butter cookies. It's not a summertime dish because who wants the oven on for 10 hours, but come February it is wonderful. See our link for the recipe.
Finally, you can use paprika as seasoning as you would black pepper; in fact, in parts of Spain and Hungary little shakers of paprika sit on dinner tables alongside the salt. Add it to guacamole; season toasted pumpkin seeds when still warm from the oven; bloom some paprika by heating it in a skillet with a little oil and then rub it on pork or lamb chops before broiling; add it to a vinaigrette or spicy mayonnaise, or flavor marinades for fish or meats. You can also add paprika's color and flavor by cooking with an ingredient that is already intensely flavored with paprika, specifically chorizo. This ruddy Spanish cured pork sausage is highly seasoned with paprika and used in traditional recipes like paella.
A final suggestion: if you've had a tin of paprika sitting on your spice shelf for as long as Mad Men has been in reruns, it's time to give it a toss so you can remember what pimentón really tastes like.