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Spice Hunting: A Guide to Paprika

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[Photograph: ©iStockphoto.com/robynmac]

I'd be willing to guess that paprika is one of the most common spices in America. For decades it's been an iconic classic for dishes like deviled eggs, and it's one of those common cover-ups for bland chicken breasts. It's also received quite a bit of attention in recent years from food journalism, prompting many readers to righteously toss out their ancient, lifeless bottles and take to merchants or the internet in search of the "right stuff."

And then they hit an impasse. Like most spices, paprika has different varieties or grades. But it surpasses others in terms of just how many of those varieties are easily obtainable. Which does the newly enlightened spice hunter buy? Here are two main guidelines.

Spiciness

Not all paprika is spicy. Some has all the heat of a bell pepper. Paprika is nothing more than dried and finely ground capsicums, and different regions grow peppers with different heat. Paprika marked as "sweet" will have almost no heat at all. It has the warm flavor of ripe peppers and sunshine, as well as a complimentary bitterness. "Semi-sweet" or "semi-hot" varieties still are relatively mild but carry some kick, like a cross between red bell pepper and cayenne. "Hot varieties" carry significant heat, though it's still much more nuanced and flavorful than red pepper flakes or cayenne. If you want to incorporate more chiles into your food but can't handle much heat, the bitter and sweet flavors and aromas of paprika are for you. And chileheads who want to singe their nostrils can go right ahead with the hot stuff knowing they're getting more flavor than from other hot peppers.

Smokiness

The recent darling of food fanatics everywhere has been Spanish smoked paprika, or pimentón. Unlike Hungarian-grown paprika, in which the peppers are slowly sun-dried, pimentón is slowly smoked over a fire, imparting an unbelievably rich and smokey flavor. The resulting smokey-sweet powder can be put on pretty much anything demanding a warm, complex flavor profile. Like all paprika, you can find pimentón with varying degrees of heat: dulce is mild, agridulce is semi-hot, and picante is the hot stuff, but again more focus on flavor than heat.

A couple notes on use: as you can only buy paprika ground, make sure you're buying the freshest you can. Its flavor dissipates quickly and stale paprika tastes like chalk. Also, as tempting as it is to sprinkle some raw on dishes for garnish, you won't really get much flavor that way. It needs to be heated in a moist environment, preferably oil, to really release its flavor. But as paprika burns quickly, don't let it spend more than a few seconds in hot oil before adding something water-based.

I love pimentón, and if I had to only have one paprika on hand this would be it, but there are times when its smokey flavor can be a little overwhelming. For more Hungarian-inspired comfort food dishes like chicken paprikash, goulash, or paprikash krumpli (a potato and onion stew enriched with bacon or Hungarian sausage), you're best sticking to unsmoked Hungarian varieties.

If you're thinking of purchasing new paprika, I'd recommend semi-sweet Hungarian, which has a balanced, bittersweet flavor, and hot pimentón for more complex kick. Those two should cover most of your paprika needs. But why stop there? With a spice as versatile as paprika there's no reason to hold back.

Get cooking with paprika with this recipe for Tomato Sauce with Roasted Garlic and Paprika »

About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries.

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