Ask Peter: Smoked versus unsmoked paprika
I am always stopping when a recipe these days says “paprika”. Should I use the Spanish one in my pantry that is “sweet smoked” or my plain Hungarian one? Apart from the obvious smokiness of the Spanish paprika, what is the difference and when should each be used? Thanks, Felicity
The main difference between the Hungarian paprika you’ll have been using for years and smoked Spanish paprika is that the latter is smoked. In the same way that you can get mild or hot paprika, you can also get mild and hot pimenton (the Spanish word for smoked paprika).
Several years ago I was cooking and teaching in Budapest and I bought several varieties of paprika from the neo-gothic Central Market, a gorgeous red brick building that you must visit if you’re in town. It was completed right at the end of the 19th century and has recently been restored — food and produce on the ground floor with souvenirs and cafes on the first floor. Apart from paprika you’ll be able to stock up on foie gras, caviar, the local wines Furmint and Tokaji, lots of cured meat and duck and goose confit.
I have to admit that I was really surprised to know Hungarians are as much into this dried spicy powder as the Spanish. I’d never thought of Hungarian food as being particularly spicy, but the climate in the south of the country is perfect for growing the peppers used. Hungarian goulash is perhaps their most famous dish, but there are six different grades of paprika in the localised cuisine ranging from the mild Kulonleges to the almost fiery Eros (which seems an appropriate name).
Like the Spanish version, paprika is made from peppers of varying heat intensity that are dried and then powdered. The difference occurs at this point. Hungarian peppers are generally dried in the sun, or under shade cloth although some more commercial varieties are likely kiln dried.
In Spain however, pimenton is considered so important in the cuisine that it has been given PDO status (Protected Denominations of Origin). To give it a more local example, for me, that same designation is applied to Stilton cheese and Jersey Royal potatoes.
Pimenton is grown in two main areas, Murcia in the southeast of the country, and La Vera which lies southwest of Madrid. In La Vera, once the peppers are harvested, they are laid on racks and dried in huts over smoking oak and turned by hand several times a day. In Murcia they’re traditionally dried in the sun as the weather suits this more. In both cases the dried peppers are then carefully stone-ground making sure the friction from the grinding doesn’t heat them up, as this deteriorates the spice and can burn the essential oils.
The drying process alone can take up to two weeks, and with all the manual handling including the harvesting, it goes some way to explaining the price of this seemingly expensive spice.
Both the Hungarian and Spanish paprikas are interchangeable in many recipes but there will be things you make that you may not want a smokiness attached to. Both are good when warmed up in advance in some recipes.
It’s one thing to add some paprika to a soup or stew that you’ll cook for a few hours but, if using in a dressing or sauce, you’re best to warm the ground paprika in some olive oil or sizzling butter before using. The spice will burn quickly so you need to take care but sizzling it this way, before mashing into potatoes, yoghurt or a salsa, will make the flavour more obvious and appealing. So, my advice would be to use them interchangeably but be aware that they are also quite different.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on hiswebsite, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes here.