If your familiarity with paprika is limited to its use as a garnish for deviled eggs, then it’s time you got to know this versatile spice and its many varieties, including hot, Hungarian, sweet, and smoked paprika.
Paprika is made from a particular variety of pepper—Capiscum annuum—which is dried and ground, imparting a deep, earthy flavor and its signature crimson hue. Unlike cayenne, which is another powdered chili that is cultivated for a consistent heat level that performs in small doses, paprika peppers are like wine grapes in that variations in where they are grown and how they are processed result in different outcomes with different uses.
If you’ve ever experienced buyer’s anxiety at a spice market when you were simply looking for “paprika” but found all manner of choices in the category, then you may be wondering what is the difference between sweet, hot, and smoked paprika.
The pepper used in paprika cultivation is indigenous to Central Mexico, though it is typically a backseat spice in its homeland, where it plays second fiddle to more common flavors such as cumin, coriander, and oregano. Through spice trade in the 16th century, paprika made its way to the old world, where it was given a starring role in dishes from Spain, Portugal, and Hungary. (Putting the paprika in paprikash.) Here we’ll explore the difference between the varieties of paprika while highlighting recipes that put each type to use.
If that on your spice rack is simply labeled as “paprika,” in all likelihood it is sweet paprika, the most common variety. Most Capiscum annuum plants produce the sweeter peppers, moreso when grown in cooler climates, and the spice is ground only from the flesh of the fruit without seeds, where a majority of heat is stored.
The sweetness of sweet paprika is subtle, however, and should not be treated as something that adds perceptible sweetness to a dish. Rather the naturally earthy tones of the ground paprika are supported by a round richness of flavor, rather than sharpness or heat. In our Shaved Carrot Salad recipe, sweet paprika balances spicy harissa and partners with cumin and caraway for a knockout vegetable dressing.
Hungary’s national dish—chicken paprikash—is built around paprika, so the cultivation of those peppers is a serious business. Technically, there are about seven different varieties of paprika made in Hungary, with such labels as Noble Sweet and Pungent Exquisite Delicate, so if you’re spice shopping in Hungary proper, you might want to find the Hungarian equivalent of a sherpa to guide you.
Hungarian paprika available in the United States, however, is a rich, sweet variety owing to Hungary’s continental climate. In our Chicken Paprikash recipe, paprika functions as a rub for the chicken skin, which then combines with a tomato, mushroom, and sour-cream based sauce for a rich, earthy, and bright flavor.
Like jalapeños, the peppers that make paprika can produce a wide range of Scoville units. Hot paprika is made from peppers that are cultivated for heat, where seeds and other plant materials are also ground into the resulting powder to kick it up a notch. Hot paprika functions a little more like cayenne, and in cheaper bottlings, may just be cut with cayenne, though the result still has a fuller flavor than cayenne alone. Hot paprika is a terrific component in a fiery spice rub for a Nashville Hot Chicken or our Fried Turkey with Southern Rub recipe.
Paprika is to jalapeño as smoked paprika is to chipotle. Paprika naturally brings a little smoky character to the table in its distinct flavor. In smoked paprika this is accentuated by actually smoking the peppers during the drying process. Smoked paprika can be made with either sweet or hot varieties (yet more available paprika choices!) resulting in a chili powder that can lend almost a bold, bacon-like flavor to vegetable dishes such as our Baked White Bean Dip.