What is Paprika? The Story Behind The Spice

| Last Updated: September 5, 2019 |

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No kitchen is complete without paprika. It’s a spice rack staple – the fourth most popular spice in the world –  found right next to salt and pepper in many a cabinet. But what is paprika really? It’s made from dried and ground peppers that are part of the Capsicum annuum species of peppers, but this is a simplistic view of this phenomenal spice. There’s so much more to paprika than meets the eye, from its history to its many varieties. Let’s review the ins and outs of how paprika came to be and how different regions have claimed a piece of the story behind this spice.

The history of paprika

Historians believe that these peppers were first cultivated in the region that is now occupied by Brazil and part of Bolivia. It is difficult to determine exactly where in this vast area the peppers originated since the original cultivation may have occurred around 7000 BCE.

Chili peppers were discovered by Christopher Columbus on his voyages to the New World at the end of the 15th century. He brought them back to Europe and offered them to the King and Queen of Spain, who gave them to monasteries to be cultivated. The pepper plants from which paprika would eventually be made were first used as a decorative houseplant and would spread from Spain throughout Europe. The plant was introduced to Hungary by the Turks, who ruled the country from the 16th to the 17th century.

Over time, the peppers would become key ingredients in both Spanish and Hungarian cuisines. While paprika is grown in numerous places around the world, Spanish and Hungarian paprikas are considered the gold standards for this spice and there are multiple varieties of each.

Paprika types: A world of flavor

Hungarian paprika

Hungary and paprika go hand in hand – in fact paprika is the national spice of Hungary, so you know the love runs deep.

Paprika’s connection to Hungary began with its cultivation in villages along the Danube river. The longer days of sunshine and dry climate provided the ideal conditions for the plant’s success. Paprika came to play the starring role in the most celebrated dish from Hungary—goulash and in other dishes as well. In Hungary, the peppers are sun-dried before being ground.

There are eight paprika varieties from Hungary, and they vary in heat and redness but all have some of the spice’s distinctive pepper flavor. The Hungarian paprika varieties include kulonleges, which is the special quality variety. There is also a blend of hot and mild paprikas called feledes. The mild, bright red variety that is most familiar in the western world is called edesnemes.

Spanish paprika

The peppers used to make Spanish paprika are known there as pimenton and they thrive in the mild climate. Their cultivation is limited to two parts of the country—the Guadalentin Valley and the Comarca de la Vera. Unlike the peppers from Hungary, Spanish paprika peppers are typically smoke-dried. To be smoke-dried, the peppers are placed on a grate above a smoldering oak fire in specialized sheds near the pepper fields. Once they are dried, they are ground to a powder with slow-moving stone wheels.

There are only three main varieties of Spanish paprika—sweet, bittersweet, and hot. The difference between the types has to do with the types of peppers and the ways in which they are processed. The sweet variety is made with a cherry-shaped pepper, the bittersweet Spanish paprika consists of a long pepper that is dark red, and the hot paprika is made with another type of long pepper. In the hot variety, the seeds and ribs are ground with the rest of the pepper.

Plain paprika

The peppers used to make plain paprika are more ambiguous in origin when compared to the Spanish and Hungarian paprikas. They can come from any of the numerous paprika-producing countries around the world including the US, China, or Zimbabwe in Africa. Plain paprika is typically very mild in flavor and is used mostly for its bright red color, which makes it an attractive garnish.

Paprika uses

As mentioned, paprika is a staple in both Hungarian and Spanish recipes. But any of the paprika types can be of great service in the kitchen. It works wonders as a garnish, especially for a splash of color atop soups and appetizers. And as a flavor enhancer, it performs well too. There’s a real peppery flavor here and dependent on the type of paprika you choose potentially a whole lot more.

While paprika is often mild, there definitely are hotter varieties. Hot paprika can be used in place of fiery spices like cayenne pepper (particularly if you want a little more flavor than the rather neutral taste of cayenne).And smoked paprika is an excellent addition to BBQ, hot sauces, and salsas to add an earthy touch – particularly if you want something a little less spicy than the popular and equally smoky chipotle pepper.

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