Next on our top 10 list of spices every cook should have on hand in their kitchen is number four in worldwide consumption: paprika, or pimentón in Spain.N
Paprika is the finely ground flesh, and sometimes seeds, of dried red chili peppers from the Capsicum annuum species. It originates in the New World and is found in both North and South America. After making the return trip from the Americas to Spain and Portugal in the 16th century, paprika (called pimentón in Spanish) made its way into Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and was pretty much adopted by Hungary as its national spice.
The generic paprika found in grocery stores is typically a middling combination of primarily sweet chili flavor with a dash of cayenne added to give it a faint kick. Famous for its bright red color, it is also widely used as a natural coloring for various foods. Frequently it’s shaken on deviled eggs, potato salad and hummus for color and a dash of subtle chili flavor.
If you’re cooking authentic Hungarian goulash, or other flavorful Eastern European dish, you’ll need to move beyond the spice aisle of your typical grocery store to find proper paprika. It comes in several grades that range from earthy, sweet and delicate to pungent, strong and hot. Hungarian paprika is considered the best with its rich chili sweetness backed with a subtle heat.
Pimentón, or Spanish paprika, was brought home by Columbus after “discovering” America and is widely used in all sorts of dishes, from rice to soup to stew to sausage. A variety of Spanish paprika that uses peppers dried by smoking with oak has a pronounced smoky flavor and aroma and is gaining popularity with chefs here in the New World.
Where to Buy
While higher end grocery stores will carry a wider variety of paprika, it’s best to visit a spice shop or ethnic market for the best quality, variety and freshness. Because of its ultra-fine grind, paprika loses its flavor fast — usually within six months — so unless you use it a lot, buy small amounts at a time. And by getting your paprika from a spice shop, you can sell and sample several before buying; something you can’t do with the hermetically sealed stuff.
How to Use
Your run-of-the-mill paprika is sprinkled over potato salad, hummus, deviled eggs and omelets mostly for its vibrant red color and less for its subtle sweet chili flavor. Pungent versions are found front and center in spicy rubs and jerk sauces used for meat and poultry and is what gives those products the rich colors, from earthy orange to fiery red.
For robust, spicy hot dishes like a jambalaya, you can expect to use 2 tablespoons or more. For other dishes, like Carne Asada, it is relegated to the spice chorus with only a teaspoon or two. In both cases, check to see what variety of paprika is called for because neither will benefit from the generic variety from the grocery store.
Who’s Cooking with it?
If you want to know what paprika tastes like in a traditional solo performance, tuck into a bowl of Bohemian Beef Goulash at the Bohemian Biergarten on 13th street, just north of the Pearl Street Mall.
This deep red, tender beef stew is served with a dollop of sour cream and slices of pretzel dumplings as a garnish in either a cup or bowl. Chef Robbie Mitchell was intent on doing the dish right by his Czech owner, Zdenek Srom, so he took a walk down the alley to the Savory Spice Shop on Broadway for some paprika advice from Dan Hayward. There he sampled more than 20 varieties of everything from rubs and mixed seasonings to straight paprikas.
“We changed out the paprika from Cisco and went with a mix of California and Hungarian paprikas,” Mitchell said, adding that the ratio is about 3 to 1 California to Hungarian. The result is a big, rich flavor that starts with a slightly smoky sweetness and evolves into deep, peppery heat that lingers pleasantly on the palate.
As for picking one of the half-dozen German beers on tap to stand up to the big, spicy flavor of the goulash, skip the malty marzen, dunkel or lighter lager and go for a palate-cleansing Pilsner Urquell. The bite of its Nobel Hops and dry finish don’t completely scrub the paprika’s heat away, so it’s a nice complement to the dish. But if you’re looking for something that will go toe-to-toe with the big paprika flavor, move over to the Bohemian IPA (aka Pick Axe IPA from Tommyknocker). It’s rich malt foundation and robust hoppy bite will keep the paprika’s heat at bay through an entire bowl.
Paprika is also a common spice for making dry rubs for bar-b-cue and Kevin Herrington at LuLu’s BBQ on Main Street in Louisville is a great place to discover how it tastes in a choir of spices.
Despite being from Oklahoma, Herrington is partial to Texas style BBQ that lets the meat and rub speak for itself. And although he has a wing rub, a house rub and a brisket rub, all three include a smoky paprika. “It’s subtle, not forward,” Herrington says. “It’s in the background.” In addition to the flavor, Herrington says the fine, powdery texture of the paprika he uses helps to bind the coarse-ground pepper and kosher salt he uses so they stick better to the meat.
And if you’re looking to give LuLu’s a try, I recommend the ribs and the brisket. But whatever you do, don’t dally and get there too late. Herrington smokes the various meats served at lunch and dinner in rotating batches that are limited in quantity. In other words, he wants to run out of nearly everything every day, that way customers are guaranteed fresh smoked selections every day. So get there early and guarantee yourself a helping of the popular ribs or burnt ends.
Another way to get a good feel for the color and flavor contributions of paprika is with Boulder Sausage Chorizo. Made fresh in their Louisville facility, the spicy chorizo comes from a Spanish recipe that calls for a prodigious helping of smoky, spicy paprika — along with garlic and oregano — that gives the ground pork its deep red color and zesty taste.
Adding paprika to your mix of go-to spices isn’t hard. If you’re reaching for garlic or chili powder, think of the paprika, too. You won’t be disappointed.