Friday, April 19, 2024

Paprika is not a dull red dust. Here’s how to choose and use the spice.

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Paprika is one of those pantry staples that doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Like bay leaves and turmeric, it has been decried as being one-note – or worse. The feeling goes something like this: Is paprika anything other than flavorless red dust? Does it really taste like anything?

First: If your paprika has no discernible smell or taste, replace or upgrade it. These two things alone can give you a new appreciation for this spice used in a variety of cuisines and dishes.

“Most home cooks have never tasted fresh, high-quality paprika,” Ethan Frisch, co-founder and co-CEO of spice brand Burlap & Barrel, says via email. “Most of what you find in the supermarket is basically dust, which has become obsolete long before you open the jar.”

Generally speaking, paprika is a spice made from dried and ground peppers. “The flavor of paprika can vary from mild to tangy and pungent, with color ranging from bright orange-red to deep blood red,” say Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst in “The New Food Lover’s Companion.” You can find paprika from Spain, South America, California and Hungary, “with the Hungarian variety considered by many to be superior,” they write. Spice company Penzeys notes that “Hungary has the sunshine needed for a smooth, rich flavor, and skilled farmers to nurture the crop from planting to harvest.”

Here’s what else you need to know about buying and storing paprika, as well as the different types and how best to use them.

How to Store Spices to Maintain the Best Flavor

Buying and storing paprika

Frisch offers an excellent description of what you should look for: “A really good paprika should announce itself as soon as you open the jar. The color should be a bright, vibrant red, without any white or orange spots. The texture should be soft and slightly lumpy, not dry or dusty. The aroma should be bright and sweet, like that of fresh garden vegetables, and the flavor should be sweet, tangy and savory, like that of sun-dried tomatoes.

Frisch suggests looking for single-origin paprika at a specialty spice store for optimal freshness and flavor. Although Burlap & Barrel is among the brands that sell paprika from Hungary, you can find other options from Hungary and Spain that have received the Denominazione di Origine Protetta label from the European Union, meaning they come from a particular region.

Frisch recommends having two types of paprika at home: Hungarian sweet and smoked.

While advice on how long ground spices should last varies from six months to a year, “paprika loses its nuanced flavor with age, so we recommend replacing it every six months or so,” writes Megan Ginsberg in Cook’s Country.

Sweet paprika is a grocery store and pantry staple. It should bring fruity, earthy flavors and a bright red color to your dishes. Paprika pairs well with many vegetables and proteins, but especially beef, chicken, eggs, fish and pork, according to “The Flavor Bible” by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. Case in point: simple deviled eggs.

Sweet paprika labels may not specify where it comes from. There are options beyond generic or Hungarian, however. Penzeys, for example, sells a California sweet paprika, which it describes as “dark red, mild and sweet, nice for chicken but browns with long cooking.”

Hungarian sweet paprika “adds lots of richness and vegetarian sweetness to stews, sauces and green vegetables,” says Frisch. You’ll find it in traditional dishes such as chicken paprikash, stuffed cabbage and goulash, although it works well in marinades and salad dressings.

“Hot paprika, most often used in chilies, curries, or stews, can be made from any number of hot peppers,” Ginsberg writes. “It can range from mildly spicy to extremely assertive, and it should not replace sweet paprika in cooking.” If you need heat and only have sweetness, use sweet paprika in conjunction with cayenne pepper. Penzeys and Spice House are among the brands that offer a medium-hot paprika, which has more heat than sweet but less heat.

As for sweet, you can find strong paprika without specified origin and others from Hungary.

Frisch says that hot paprika “goes stale particularly quickly,” meaning you risk losing the nuance that makes it more than just spicy. In addition to the classic Hungarian dishes listed above, try some in chocolate desserts, like brownies. Frisch likes to make a tonic by combining it with honey in boiling water when he has a sore throat or cough.

Smoked paprika is also known as Pimenton, thanks to its Spanish origins. It’s made from peppers smoked and dried over an oak fire, explains “The New Food Lover’s Companion.” To keep things interesting, there are also three varieties: sweet/sweet (dulce), bittersweet/moderately spicy (agridulce), and spicy (picante). The sweet style, however, is what most American home cooks know and have access to.

As with any smoked ingredient, a little chili pepper can go a long way. If you’re worried about overpowering a dish, try cutting smoked paprika with a little sweetness to mellow it and create a more balanced flavor, recommends chef Alex Raij in “The Flavor Bible.”

Smoked paprika is useful in vegetarian or vegan dishes, such as Vegan Miso and Smoked Paprika Braised Collard Greens, to capture some of the essence of bacon, ham, or other meats. It also works well mixed with mayonnaise for a lively sandwich spread and in spice rubs, such as in Pimenton Roasted Chicken.

Need more paprika inspiration? Here are some recipes from our archives.

Chicken and Peppers with Creamy Paprika Sauce: A light riff on paprikash.

Lecso (Hungarian pepper stew): Uses both sweet and smoked paprika.

Smoked paprika pasta: A generous dish to feed a crowd.

Smoked Paprika Potato Chips with Yogurt Ranch Dip: A healthier homemade snack.

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