The discovery of the New World introduced a wealth of new ingredients into the cuisines of Europe. It's hard now to imagine Italy without the tomato, and it's equally hard to imagine Spain or Hungary without paprika. Made by drying and grinding red peppers to a fine powder, paprika is available in several forms, from mild to hot and smoky. With so many varieties of paprika available, each member of your family can have a different favorite.
The most common forms of paprika are made from a sweet, heart-shaped red pepper known as the pimento, the same one you'll find in a stuffed cocktail olive. These peppers are sun-dried in the field or mechanically-dried in commercial production then ground into a fine powder. Its rich red color comes from unusually high levels of beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. Paprika lends a vivid color and rich flavor to sauces and stewed dishes.
Forms of Paprika
Paprika can be purchased in mild or hot versions, either of which can be smoked or unsmoked. The mild versions are simply dried and ground pimento peppers, with their seeds removed. Hot paprika can be made either by leaving the seeds in the pimentos or by mixing a hotter ground pepper with the pimento. In Spain a specific hot pepper is grown for this purpose, longer and more slender than the pimento. Smoked versions of both mild and hot paprika are made by surrounding the peppers with wood smoke at low temperature as they hang and dry.
Substituting Hot Unsmoked Paprika
The basic substitution for hot paprika is regular mild or "sweet" paprika, with another kind of pepper added to provide the chili heat. Use a good Hungarian or Spanish paprika for the best flavor, such as the Hungarian "Pride of Szeged" brand or the Spanish "La Chinata." Any good brand of paprika has a surprisingly rich, full flavor. To make it hot, add cayenne pepper until you've gotten it to the level of spiciness you're comfortable with. You can use other powdered hot peppers as well, whether commercial or homemade. Hot sauce can also be used in sauce-based dishes.
Substituting Hot Smoked Paprika
There are two ways to substitute for hot smoked paprika. The first is to use mild smoked paprika, such as the Spanish "pimenton de la Vera," and add a hot pepper to it in the same way as substituting for unsmoked hot paprika. The second alternative is to use regular mild paprika and add a smoked chili pepper to the mixture, such as chipotle powder. Any other smoked chilies can be used if you have access to them. Alternatively, make the same substitutions as for hot unsmoked paprika then add the smokiness with a few drops of liquid smoke. If your cooking time is as limited as your pantry supplies, make a quick and easy substitution by using regular sweet paprika and adding dry spicy ranch dressing mix.
Fred Decker is a trained chef and prolific freelance writer. In previous careers, he sold insurance and mutual funds, and was a longtime retailer. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. His articles have appeared on numerous home and garden sites including GoneOutdoors, TheNest and eHow.