The Food Lab: The Long and Short Paths to Chicken Paprikash

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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Chicken paprikash, made the slightly-harder-but-still-really-easy way. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

My kitchen has smelled like dried peppers for the last two months. When I run my hands through my hair, my fingers come out with flecks of fine red powder on them. I've palmed off so many batches of chicken stewed with Hungarian paprika on my neighbors that they no longer accept them. I've taken to leaving deli containers of leftovers on pregnant friends' doorsteps when they're not home so they can't reject them. It's not that chicken paprikash—the Hungarian dish of chicken stewed with onions, paprika, and sour cream, served over noodles or spaetzle—is a particularly difficult dish to make. The problem is that it's almost too easy.

Whenever I step into the kitchen, I'm trying to balance an equation in my head between the amount of effort I'm putting into a dish and the expected return. This is true whether I'm developing a recipe for ramen or making a quick midnight snack. So there are times—for example, Saturday afternoons when my wife's friends are coming over for dinner, and I really want to pull out all the stops—when I'm willing to put in whatever effort it takes to eke out an extra one or two degrees closer to my idea of perfection. At the opposite extreme, there are times—maybe late at night, after coming home from an evening of beer and karaoke—when I'm perfectly content with throwing grated cheese on some tortillas, scattering them with pickled jalapeños, tossing them in the microwave, and calling them nachos.* Both results are delicious in their own way, and neither would be able to take the place of the other.

* Full disclosure: I sometimes do this even when fully sober and functional. It's that tasty.

So when I look at something like chicken paprikash, an inherently simple, homey dish, I need to take extra care to make sure that I land on an effort-to-flavor equation that is properly balanced. This proved particularly hard with this dish. After playing around with the recipe for weeks on end, I simply couldn't decide whether to publish my super-simple version that produces really great results, or the more complex version with results that are a little bit better.

So why force myself to choose? I'm a liberal guy who takes a rather polyamorous approach to recipes. Don't make me settle.

Before we get to the recipes, though, let's talk a bit about the process.

The Path to Paprikash

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I didn't grow up with a Hungarian oma. Yet paprikash is one of those dishes that is so comforting, you can't help but feel like you've known it your whole life.

This kind of thinking can lead you to trouble, as you quickly find out that there are as many variations on paprikash as there are videos of Hungarian omas making it on YouTube. My earliest introduction consisted of shredded chicken breast stirred into a pale red sauce made with sour cream and paprika and served over large flour- and egg-based dumplings. Other versions use whole chickens stewed with bell peppers and onions and served over egg noodles. Some incorporate potatoes, carrots, and chicken, like in a goulash-style stew. So the first real question here was: What type of paprikash should I make?

I immediately dismissed the idea of the shredded-chicken-breast version I first tasted in a college cafeteria. Chicken breast tends to dry out if you cook it for too long, which doesn't leave much of a window of time to draw flavor out of it. Using bone-in chicken pieces not only produces juicier meat, but also provides more flavor for the sauce.

Diving deeper into traditional Hungarian recipes, I found that most share a common formula: Start by sautéing onions in a skillet, add some paprika and other flavorings, stir in some chicken and water, then let the dish stew until the chicken is tender. Bind the sauce together with some flour, stir in sour cream, and serve the whole thing over some kind of pasta.

Which brings us to the next question: How do you maximize flavor in a dish that is so utterly simple?

Paprika Picks

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Nearly every recipe for paprikash starts with sautéing onions, and I saw no reason to deviate from that. I like to sauté my onions until they're just starting to brown around the edges, which gives them a sweetness that nicely cuts the richer flavor of the paprika and chicken.

Next comes the paprika. Some recipes call for adding the paprika to the onions and sautéing them for a few minutes before adding the chicken and liquid; others simply have you stir it in after the liquid has been added. The former method, I've found, is better: Toasting the paprika in oil over higher heat not only draws out more oil-soluble flavor compounds, which then distribute themselves around the finished dish, but also triggers a series of chemical reactions that help the paprika develop all-new flavor, adding depth and complexity to the spice. Since paprika is the only real aromatic element we're using in this dish, maximizing its flavor is key.

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Clockwise from top left: Supermarket Hungarian paprika, two types of Hungarian-style paprika from Penzeys, California paprika, and Spanish paprika.

I made the dish several times with the standard supermarket paprika I used to buy in bulk and store in my pantry, and every time the flavor came out lacking. Could there really be such a big difference between "good" paprika and regular paprika? Turns out the answer is a resounding yes. I took a trip out to my local Penzeys spice outlet, spoke with the manager there, and ended up coming home with four varieties of paprika: two Hungarian-style paprikas (sharp and sweet), a Spanish paprika, and a California-style paprika. Tasting these high-end powders next to the supermarket stuff made me swear off ever buying the latter again. (The good news is that if you order it online, it's no more expensive than the supermarket version.)

Apart from that, fresher paprika is better, to the extent that domestically grown and ground Hungarian-style paprika is more flavorful than most of the actually-imported-from-Hungary stuff I tried. This underscores the point that you must use fresh paprika for this dish to be successful. That old aluminum can that you inherited from your mother and has kept you company all through college and two apartments since? Do yourself a favor and toss it right now. I mean it. I'll wait.

All done? Good.

Despite Billy Crystal's opinion, by and large there is simply not enough pepper in the average paprikash. Indeed, I found one recipe in which the only paprika involved was sprinkled on at the very end. In most recipes, though, the paprika called for came in at around two tablespoons. I bumped it up incrementally and reached a full quarter cup before the flavor was truly satisfying.

The Easy Way

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Next, I turned my attention to the third ingredient: the chicken. Even before I started, I'd had a good idea that I'd be using chicken legs for this recipe, and a quick test confirmed that lean chicken breast, even with its skin and bones intact, simply dries out too much during the low and slow cooking needed for this style of dish.

A number of years ago, my wife introduced me to this five-ingredient Colombian stew made in a pressure cooker. What's fascinating about that recipe is that all you do is add chicken, potatoes, tomatoes, onion, and bay leaf to a pressure cooker, then hit go. There's no added liquid whatsoever, yet somehow you end up with plenty of flavor-packed broth at the end.** See, chicken has tons of liquid inside it, especially in the legs. The trick is to coax it out without over-evaporating it.

** I ended up using the same technique in my pressure cooker chicken chile verde.

When you nestle the raw chicken pieces directly into the onion-and-paprika mixture, set the heat to the absolute lowest setting, and cook directly on the stovetop with a tight-fitting lid, the chicken will end up producing its own flavor-packed broth—at least a cup of it—all while cooking down to tender perfection.

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The only thing left to do then is transfer the liquid to a measuring cup in order to more easily skim the fat off the top (the taller and narrower your vessel, the more distinct the fat layer will be), return it to the pan, and stir in some sour cream. Season the sauce with salt and a touch more fresh paprika if you'd like, turn the chicken to coat, and you've got yourself a stew that will satisfy even the Old World-iest of omas.

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Some folks like to serve a pile of naked noodles or spaetzle and pour the chicken and sauce over the top. I like to turn to the Italians for advice when it comes to pasta, so I instead opt to finish the dish by setting the chicken aside, tossing the pasta with the sauce, then serving it all together, garnishing it with an extra dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of freshly chopped parsley or dill.

If I've learned anything from listening to The Sporkful, it's that we can all do better by borrowing catchphrases, and I think this one deserves a BAM! It's not often that a simple four-ingredient dish offers flavors so rich and satisfying.

This is my simple version of paprikash. But I promised you a pull-out-all-the-stops version as well, didn't I?

The Slightly-More-Difficult-But-Still-Really-Easy Way

Truth be told, it doesn't take all that much more effort to improve the final dish by a few notches. The first step is to start by adding some browned flavors to give the sauce depth and complexity.

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If you're going to sear chicken, sear it deep.

I start by heating up a little bit of vegetable oil in the bottom of a sauté pan and searing the chicken with its skin side down. Browning chicken skin does more than simply crisp it up—it also triggers the Maillard reaction, the cascade of chemical reactions that begins when heat is applied to proteins and carbohydrates, creating hundreds of new aromatic compounds.

But the thing about browning chicken, as I've mentioned in the past, is that it won't start to brown until all of its surface moisture has evaporated. As soon as the chicken hits the pan, its muscle proteins start to constrict, forcing out liquids from the inside—and, as we saw with our quick and easy paprikash, there's an awful lot of liquid inside chicken. That liquid will limit the temperature of the inside of that sauté pan to 212°F (100°C) until it has completely evaporated, so it's essential to take the time to brown your chicken properly. This can take a full eight minutes or so on a standard home burner.

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There are two side effects of this expression and evaporation of liquid from the chicken. The first is that as the water evaporates from the pan, it leaves behind most of the stuff that's dissolved in it—proteins and carbohydrates end up deposited on the bottom of the pan. (You can call this stuff fond if you're French or you're fancy or you're both. I just call it "tasty brown gunk.") This is good news for your sauce: As you sauté your onions in the pan, they'll exude moisture that will allow that browned gunk to re-dissolve in liquid, this time packing even more flavor thanks to its browning. Your sauce will end up tastier for it in the end.

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Though most authentic versions of paprikash don't include any bell peppers at all, I tried making a version with red bell peppers and found that I actually really enjoyed the flavor they added—they lend brightness and sweetness to the finished stew. So I've kept them in as an optional ingredient.

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That brings us to the second side effect: Where's the sauce? In our first version of paprikash, we created our sauce by very carefully not evaporating chicken juices. In this version, we've purposefully tried to get rid of as much liquid as possible for the purposes of browning. Attempting to finish the dish in the same way as I did my easy version—by simply adding back the chicken, covering it, and cooking it over low heat—confirms this. The chicken will exude very little moisture, and the onions and paprika will end up burning.

To compensate for this, I deglaze my pan with an extra cup of chicken stock. A basic homemade chicken stock is best for this, as homemade stock has plenty of gelatin in it, which lends the sauce body and a rich, noodle- (and tongue-) coating texture.

Store-bought chicken broth can have decent flavor—I typically use either Costco's Kirkland brand or Swanson organic low-sodium broth—but it lacks gelatin. Fortunately, there's an easy fix for that: Just add a packet of gelatin to your chicken broth.

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It's important to sprinkle the gelatin over the broth while it's still cool and give it some time to properly hydrate, so you don't end up with lumps of undissolved gelatin in the finished dish.

Once you've deglazed the pan with gelatin-enhanced chicken stock and nestled the seared chicken pieces into the mix, the rest of the process is pretty similar to the easy version. Cover and simmer over super-low heat until the chicken is completely cooked through—I added a bay leaf to the pot for a little bit more flavor. I also tried a version in which I left the lid off and finished cooking the dish in the oven in order to keep the chicken skin crisp, but in the end, it wasn't worth it: The skin in chicken paprikash is supposed to be tender, not crisp.

I could have left the stew as is, but this is the complex version, so I couldn't resist gussying it up with some more flavor boosters right at the end.

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First up from my bag of tricks: fish sauce. No, it's not even remotely a Hungarian ingredient. Yes, it adds savory deliciousness to a wide variety of stews and soups. No, it won't make your paprikash taste fishy. Yes, you can leave it out if you really want to. No, I will not hold your hand through the process. Yes, you can test it out on your friends by serving them the dish without telling them it contains fish sauce. No, they will not leave any trace of sauce behind in their bowls.

Finally, a splash of lemon juice and a scattering of minced dill or parsley brighten up the sauce.

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And there we go. Two versions of the same dish—one a little more difficult than the other, but both an incredibly good return of flavor on your investment of time and money.

But wait! What about that spaetzle? I hear you say.

Yes, I also spent days and days and days pushing batter into boiling water through various hole-filled contraptions to perfect my spaetzle recipe, but that's another story for another time. Right now, there's chicken waiting for me.

P.S. You want another good return on your time investment? I suggest you put on some headphones before watching this particular YouTube clip.