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Take the mystery out of this sweet, hot, complex pepper powder. Here's everything you need to know about paprika.

Lior Lev Sercarz is a classically trained chef and founder of La Boîte, a haven for spices in New York City. His new book, The Spice Companion, is a comprehensive schooling on the origins, history, harvesting and drying techniques, uses and recipes associated with the world’s most important spices. Whether you’re brushing up on your knowledge of peppercorns or learning about your culinary repertoire’s new secret weapon, this is the book for you. In this excerpt, you’ll learn everything you need to know about paprika. It’s not just for deviled eggs, you know.

Paprika

CAPSICUM ANNUUM
A rust-red, mild to hot spice made from ground capsicums

FLAVOR & AROMA

“Do you prefer color or flavor?” This question comes up often in conversations with my paprika suppliers. There are times when I am lucky to get both, but in some years, farms yield good flavor with muted tones. Some people prefer an intense, deep red color to impart a better visual element while cooking. Some, myself included, would rather have flavor in lieu of good looks. Since the quality of paprika peppers, as with all spices, is entirely dependent on nature and the growing environment, no two crops are exactly the same. I choose my Hungarian paprika based on a sweet scent and deep flavor, and I don’t mind if it’s darker or lighter as long as it delivers on taste. I also love that it comes in a range of heat levels, from mild to hot.

Paprika really shines when slightly heated or infused into a liquid. It is mostly sold already ground because of the labor-intensive process required to remove the stems and seeds and then grind it. You can buy whole mild chiles and grind them at home for a fresher result; it just means more work for you. Because of its powdery texture, paprika makes a great thickening agent for sauces and stews. Its vibrant color has been known to fix the appearance of any low-end tomato sauce as well.

I occasionally hear someone raving about Moroccan paprika, saying how great and unique it is. I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s not some rare variety of paprika; they just add a touch of oil to it to give it a slightly humid aspect. That’s what makes it so fragrant.

ORIGIN
Native to the Americas and later Spain. Cultivated in China, the Middle East, and Hungary

HARVEST SEASON
These capsicums, in the nightshade (Solanaceae) family, are planted in early spring and harvested when they turn red and glossy in the summer and fall. Traditionally, as is still done in the Hungarian villages of Szeged and Kalosca, peppers are threaded on strings and hung along fences to dry, seeded and stemmed, and then ground by hand with a mortar and pestle. Today, mechanical stones and cylinders have replaced the laborious task of manual grinding.

PARTS USED
Dried red capsicums

ABOUT
The peppers used for making paprika are generally associated with two main sources: Spain, where it was first produced; and Hungary, where it has been produced since the seventeenth century. In Spain, paprika is known as pimentón.

What began as a spice used mainly by peasants became an essential ingredient and coloring agent in much of Hungarian cuisine. Szeged and Kalocsa produce some of the best paprika in the world and have competed against each other for the title of Paprika Capital for centuries. Here, capsicums are sun-dried instead of smoked, unlike some Spanish varieties. Red-hued Hungarian paprika is essential to its rich, meaty national dishes, including paprikás (chicken in paprika-infused roux) and pörkölt (meat stew) or pacalpörkölt (spicy pörkölt made with tripe).

In Hungary, paprika — particularly the hot variety — can be found on tables alongside salt shakers instead of pepper. It has become so popular that there is a bigger global demand than Hungary can fulfill alone, and let’s not forget that pricing drives the market. Because of this, most paprika today comes from China, Peru and some Middle Eastern countries.

TRADITIONAL USES

Goulash (meat and vegetable stew) — Hungary

Sofrito (sauce base) — Latin America

Chermoula (herb marinade) — Morocco

Fish stew — Portugal

Chorizo — Spain/Mexico

NOTE

Toasting not recommended

RECOMMENDED PAIRINGS

Deviled eggs

Crab bisque

Sweet potato veloute

Refried black beans

Braised oxtail

SPICE PAIRINGS

caraway, cumin, garlic, ginger, thyme

RECIPE IDEAS

  1. Add ground sweet paprika to reduced port wine and use to glaze a whole duck while roasting.
  2. Combine ground sweet paprika with baked potato and use in your gnocchi recipe.
  3. Season cooked chickpeas with ground hot paprika and fresh garlic for a pungent, perked-up hummus.

QUICK BLEND Paprikash

Makes about 1/4 cup/29 grams

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons/15 grams ground sweet paprika
  • 1 1/2 heaping teaspoons/5 grams caraway seeds, toasted and ground
  • 1 teaspoon/3 grams dill seeds, ground
  • 1 teaspoon/3 grams white peppercorns, ground
  • 1 teaspoon/3 grams juniper berries, ground

Directions

Braise red cabbage with this earthy blend, along with red wine, smoky bacon, onions, and apples, or add it to savory pork stuffing for a touch of color and great texture.

Reprinted with permission from The Spice Companion: A Guide to the World of Spices