No matter the country I live in, paprika is always present in my spice cabinet. I like to call it a miracle spice because of the versatility of this striking crimson red coloured powder. It can be used to season a dish, to decorate and beautify a plate, and of course to add colour to a meal -- or to even dye eggs and cloth with, there is so much to love about this sumptuous spice.
Paprika Vs. Chili Powder
Let's first address the most common confusion about paprika and ground red chili powder (please note that I am not referring to the seasoning mix that is used to make American chili con carne). At first sight the two look pretty much the same, the only physical difference may be a slight difference in colour tone. Where paprika and chili powder differ the most is in the source pepper that is used to make each of them.
For starters most (but not all) ground chili powders are typically sold by the name of the chile pepper that was used to prepare them, for example smoked chipotles once ground into a powder are sold as chipotle powder. It is also important to note that some brands of chili powders will often blend a combination of red peppers to create their powders. As for paprika powder it is sourced by very specific peppers found in paprika producing countries like Spain and Hungary, to name a couple.
Sweet, Spicy and Smokey
The second most obvious difference between paprika powders and general chili powders is their taste. Most people when they think paprika will imagine a sweet tasting red powder, which is correct -- but there's more.
Paprika varieties can not only have a mild taste, but there are also smoked and spicy paprikas.
The variety and flavour of paprikas can vary greatly depending on the country they were produced in. For example, let's take the most well know paprika producing countries of Spain and Hungary. In Spain, paprika is actually known as or called pimentón. Spanish paprikas are sold in several varieties, like dulce (or sweet), picante (or spicy), agridulce (which is when sweet and spicy are combined to create a medium heat), and lastly there's the famous smoked pimentón.
As for Hungarian paprika most people are familiar with a sweet, or mild, tasting one. The reason for this is that in most countries outside of Hungary any of the other types of Hungarian paprika are extremely difficult to come by. Hungarian paprika has eight different grades: special or különleges which is very bright red and has no heat at all, Félédes which is a half sweet and half spicy paprika, delicate and mild called csípősmentes csemege, csemege paprika which is like the previous one but with more pungency, csípős csemege which is still delicate yet hotter than the previous, Rózsa or rose paprika which is can sometimes have more of an orange-red hue and has a mild taste.
Then there are is édesnemes, which has a slight heat and is the most commonly exported paprika. Lastly the most pungent or hottest of the Hungarian paprikas is the erős, this paprika has more of a brownish tone to the natural redness.
How Spicy and What Makes Some Spicy and Others Not
While both Spanish and Hungarian paprikas have a "spicy" or pungent variety, I think it should be noted that neither of them have ever seem as hot as ground cayenne. I think their heat is generally as hot or milder than the standard red chili powder sold in America. This, of course, is no knock on either the Spanish or Hungarian paprikas, as they both have fantastic flavours and each has a great use.
So why is some paprika hot and some not? Well this all has to do with how the red powders are produced. The sweet or mild paprika does not contain any capsaicin, which is what give chilies their heat; the reason for this is that when the sweet variety is produced all of the seeds and membranes are removed from the pepper, and as we've previously discussed this is where the heat is contained. For the spicy paprikas some of the seeds, the placenta and the capsaicin glands (or veins) are left on the pepper when they are dried and ground into the powder, which then allows them to have the zestiness.
Amazing Ways to Use All of These Paprikas
In many countries paprika (no matter the variety) is most often used as decorative touch to a served plate. It's truly amazing how that splash of red can make a dish, like hummus, look so much fancier and prettier. But don't limit your food to just a decorative touch of paprika, instead incorporated into as many dishes as you can -- and all varieties too!
In Hungary paprika is used extensively in their cuisine, with perhaps the most commonly recognised dishes of goulash (beef stew) and chicken paprikash. Paprika is also used to make some Hungarian, and many Eastern European sausages. In Spain it is used in rice dishes and just about everything.
You can also use paprika anytime you want to give your food a red tint. For example when you make tandoori chicken, paprika makes a good substitute for that Indian ingredient that traditional gives the chicken its reddish hue. Paprika is great in pastas, over deviled eggs, in soups and stews, as a colour and smoky flavour for all sorts of meat dishes. Really anything you want to put it on, paprika will go great.
I think perhaps the most amazing thing about paprika is how you can combine it with fresh and ground spicy peppers. This is specially useful for people that don't handle too much heat or for when cooking for people that have a lower heat tolerance than you. Sometimes these occasions arise when you want the dish to still have that reddish colour but not the heat; so all you have to do is replace a percentage of the spicy pepper with the sweet, or even smokey, paprika. I can tell you that paprika is wonderful for this.
To use the smoky paprika I would recommend adding it to marinades and bbq sauces. You'll get the red tone and the sweet smokiness. Additionally I love adding this paprika to french fry seasoning or when making potato wedges, it's great.
But Don't Burn It!
The best and most important tip that I can give you regarding paprika is to not burn it. No matter if you are using mild sweet, spicy or smokey paprika, you want to be careful. For paprika to fully release that amazing flavour and scent of it, it first must be lightly cooked or fried in a little oil. But because it can quickly go from heavenly to bitter and unpalatable you want to be paying extra attention to your recipe and paprika. Typically all that is required is to heat the oil, or the other ingredients then add the paprika and quickly heat or sauté the paprika for merely a minute. You will either be required to quickly add the remaining ingredients and help stop the paprika from burning, or the recipe may state to turn off and remove the pan from the heat.
Last Paprika Tips
While nowadays all sorts of paprikas are available all over the World, if you are planning a trip to a paprika producing country I highly suggest purchasing some as a souvenir. Of course countries like Spain and Hungry are very well know for their paprika, but there are many European countries that also produce paprika worth trying -- I am particularly fond of Czech paprika.
Lastly, if you should want to make your own paprika at home you'll want to read over this great article by Honest-Food.net