Paprika 101 – The Basics
Paprika is the fourth most popular spice in the world and is often found in spice mixes and Cajun seasoning. It is made from finely ground, dried ripened sweet pimento bell peppers (Capsicum annum). They are members of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family of plants. This is a type of pepper that is sweet with very little heat. It is mild in flavor and has a brilliant orange-red color. The flavor of regular paprika has been described as bitter to mild and slightly sweet, with earthy/fruity/pungent notes. Paprika is sometimes hot, depending on the variety of pepper. Paprika has many different names, in the various languages and cultures around the world. This type of pepper is primarily grown in Hungary, Spain, South America, the Mediterranean region, India, and in California in the USA.
Spanish smoked paprika was smoked over fire which adds a smoky flavor. Smoked paprika has been described as being bitter to slightly sweet, and sometimes hot, with notes of meat and/or smoke. Hungarian paprika is usually sun-dried and sweet.
Early Spanish explorers carried red pepper seeds back to Europe. The plant was cultivated and over time it gradually lost its pungent flavor and evolved into “sweet” paprika. It is considered to be the national spice of Hungary, where it was introduced by the Turks in 1569. Many varieties of paprika can be found in Hungary, with their colors ranging from brown, red, and orange hues. In 1937, the Hungarian chemist Albert Szent-György won the Nobel Prize for research on the vitamin content of paprika. He found that pound for pound, paprika has more Vitamin C than citrus fruit. The bright color of paprika comes the carotenoids it contains.
Main Types of Paprika
There are three main types of paprika: sweet, smoked, and hot. There is a distinct flavor difference between the types of paprika, which can give varied flavor profiles to your dish. With flavors ranging from mild and sweet, to smokey, to bitter and hot, it’s helpful to know the differences so you can use the appropriate variety when preparing foods.
Sweet Paprika. This type of paprika is usually labeled as “paprika.” It adds bright orange-red color and a slightly sweet flavor without heat to any dish. It is often used as a garnish on deviled eggs and potato salad, and used as a flavoring in meat rubs and marinades. It may also be added to cheeses, chicken, duck, hors d’oeuvres, rice, salads, smoked foods, vegetables, and cottage cheese. It can even be added to salad dressings where it can act as an emulsifier (combining oil and vinegar). If a recipe does not call for a particular type of paprika, sweet paprika would usually be used. Sweet paprika is sometimes used to balance the flavor of other spices in a dish.
Smoked Paprika. This type of paprika is made from sweet peppers that were smoked during the drying process, giving it a smoky or meaty flavor. This adds a subtle smokiness to food. It is sometimes referred to as smoked Spanish paprika, or pimenton. Smoked paprika comes in several varieties, including mild, medium-hot, and hot. Note that substituting smoked paprika for sweet paprika (and vice versa) will change the flavor of the dish, sometimes in an undesirable way. Smoked paprika may be used in flavoring potatoes, sweet potatoes, lentil dishes, rice dishes, salad dressings, Romesco sauce for pasta, stews, barbecue sauces and dishes, chicken dishes, veggie burgers, vegetarian meatballs and gravy, shrimp dishes, tacos, BBQ sauce and sandwiches, deviled eggs, seasoned salt blends, corn chowder, refried beans, Tuscan bean soup, butternut squash dishes, pot pies, and any dish where you would enjoy a bit of smokiness flavor added.
Hot Paprika. Hot paprika is Hungarian paprika and is considered to be the national spice of Hungary. It is an important spice used in Hungarian cooking, and is often considered to be superior to the other types of paprika. It adds a peppery spiciness to any dish, and in Turkey and Hungary it is often used like many Americans use black pepper. It is kept on the table and used as desired on any dish before them. Hot paprika is often used in stews, meat dishes, and any dish that would benefit from a touch of cayenne pepper flavor.
Nutrition and Health Benefits of Paprika
Although we don’t eat a lot of paprika at any one time, it does have some nutritional value and health benefits worth noting. Paprika is rich in calcium, potassium, and phosphorus. It is also a good source of folate, Vitamin A (from carotenoids), choline, niacin, Vitamin B6, Vitamin E, iron, and Vitamin K. One teaspoon of paprika has all of 6.5 calories.
Antioxidants. Since paprika is made from colorful dried peppers, it is notably high in a variety of antioxidants. Antioxidants are important compounds that fight cell damage caused by highly reactive free radical molecules. Such damage is linked to chronic illnesses including heart disease and cancer. It is well-established that eating antioxidant-rich foods may help to prevent these conditions. The main antioxidants in paprika are in the carotenoid family including beta carotene, capsanthin, zeaxanthin, and lutein.
Healthy Vision. Paprika contains nutrients that may boost our eye health. These nutrients include Vitamin E, beta carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Studies have linked diets that are high in these nutrients, especially lutein and zeaxanthin, to a reduced risk of age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.
In a study published in the March 2008 issue of the journal Archives of Ophthalmology, researchers studied the diets of over 1,800 women. They found that those with the highest intake of lutein and zeaxanthin were 32 percent less likely to develop cataracts than those with the lowest intakes.
In another study published in the September 2007 issue of the journal Archives of Ophthalmology, researchers examined the diets of 4,519 adults and noted that those with a higher intake of lutein and zeaxanthin were associated with a lower risk of age-related macular degeneration.
Inflammation. The hot varieties of paprika contain the compound capsaicin. It is believed that this compound binds to receptors in nerve cells reducing inflammation and pain. In turn, this may help to protect us against a number of inflammatory conditions including arthritis, nerve damage, and digestive issues.
Several studies have shown that topical creams with capsaicin help to reduce arthritis pain and nerve damage. Similar research on capsaicin tablets is more limited. So for now, if you want to try capsaicin for pain relief, topical creams may be a wise choice.
In a study published in 2014 in the journal Progress in Drug Research, researchers followed 376 adults with gastrointestinal diseases. Capsaicin supplements helped to prevent stomach inflammation and damage. In another study published in 2018 in the Journal of Neuroinflammation, researchers found that rats who were fed capsaicin supplements had reduced inflammation associated with an induced autoimmune nerve condition.
More research is needed in this area, but if you suffer from inflammation, eating more foods with capsaicin or taking capsaicin supplements may be helpful for your condition.
Cholesterol Levels. The capsaicin in hot paprika may also be beneficial for improving blood cholesterol by raising the level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. In a two-week study published in the December 2009 issue of The British Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that rats fed diets with paprika and capsanthin experienced significant increases in HDL levels when compared with rats on the control diet.
Carotenoids, as found in paprika, have also been found to help lower levels of total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. High total cholesterol and LDL levels have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Adding paprika to your diet on a regular basis may help to improve cholesterol levels.
Possible Anticancer Effects. Some of the compounds in paprika, including beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin have been shown to fight oxidative stress which is believed to increase our risk for certain cancers. In a study involving almost 2,000 women, published in January 2005 in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers found that those with the highest blood levels of beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and total carotenoids were 25 to 35% less likely to develop breast cancer. Capsaicin may also inhibit cancer cell growth and survival by influencing the expression of several genes. More research in this area is needed, but regularly including paprika in your recipes or sprinkling it on foods on your plate will help to increase your intake of these important compounds and thereby may help to reduce your risk of developing cancer.
Blood Sugar Control. Capsaicin appears to influence genes involved in blood sugar control and also inhibit enzymes that break down sugar in the body. It may also improve insulin sensitivity. In the April 2016 issue of Clinical Nutrition, researchers reported a 4-week study involving 42 pregnant diabetic women. Those who took a 5 mg capsaicin supplement daily experienced a significant decrease in post-meal blood sugar levels, as compared with the control group. In another study reported in the July 2006 issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers studied 36 adults for 4 weeks. Those who included capsaicin-containing chili peppers experienced significantly lower blood insulin levels after meals than those in the chili-free control diet group. Lower insulin levels usually indicate better blood sugar control. Even though they were not specifically studying paprika, the researchers were studying a common compound, capsaicin, found in both paprika and chili peppers. Sprinkling hot paprika on your foods on a regular basis may help to control blood sugar levels.
Healthy Blood. Two nutrients that are important for healthy blood are iron and Vitamin E. Paprika is rich in both of them. It’s well established that iron is a critical part of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that helps to carry oxygen throughout the body. Vitamin E is used to create healthy membranes for cells. A deficiency in either of those nutrients may lower your red blood cell count, which can cause anemia associated with fatigue, pale skin, and shortness of breath. Sprinkling paprika on foods when possible may help to protect you from iron-deficiency anemia.
How to Select Paprika
Which paprika you select depends on your preferred flavor and also the dish or food that you intend to use it on. Although all varieties of paprika are all made from dried peppers, the main types of paprika have different flavor profiles. If you prefer or need a mild, relatively sweet flavor for your intended use, then sweet paprika would be the one to buy. If you prefer or need a smoky flavor, then smoked paprika is called for. If you need or want a hot and spicy flavored paprika, then opt for hot paprika. No matter which you opt for, they will all be in the dried form and should be found in the spice section of your local grocery store.
How to Store Paprika
Paprika will generally have a long shelf-life when it is kept dry and cool, away from heat, light, and air. As long as you adhere to those conditions, it should keep for 2 or 3 years. It may not “go bad” but the flavor will diminish over time. Some suggest it be kept in the refrigerator, which may help to deter the loss of flavor and thereby prolong the shelf-life. Either way, a tightly sealed container is important for keeping it away from moisture and air. To keep paprika at its peak flavor and condition, replace your supply every 6 months.
Quick Ideas and Tips for Using Paprika
* Sprinkle paprika on roasted potatoes.
* Season grilled chicken with paprika and a little salt and pepper.
* Add paprika to hummus.
* Combine paprika with other spices in a dry rub blend for grilled meats.
* Add paprika to a marinade.
* Add paprika to batter for frying chicken.
* Use paprika as a garnish for deviled eggs or potato salad.
* If possible, add paprika toward the middle to end of cooking time, unless a recipe specifies otherwise. This will help you to get the most flavor from your paprika, since prolonged heat can diminish the flavor.
* To get good flavor from your paprika, heat it in a moist environment. It tends to burn easily, so if you add it to something oil-based, don’t wait long before taking it off the stove or adding something water-based to the pan.
* Paprika is made with different varieties of peppers and is sometimes treated, such as being smoked. Varieties include: (1) sweet Hungarian paprika, which is mild and somewhat sweet, (2) hot Hungarian paprika, which is a bit pungent with a somewhat complex flavor, and (3) smoked paprika, also known as Spanish paprika, which may be mild or hot, and has a smoky flavor.
* If you need paprika for a recipe and don’t have enough, possible substitutes include ancho chile pepper powder, a pinch of cayenne pepper (which would be much hotter than paprika), a pinch of ground chipotle powder (which would add smokiness and heat), or chili powder (which would be slightly more pungent and add the flavors of cumin, oregano, and other spices).
Herbs and Spices That Go Well with Paprika (Regular or Smoked)
Cayenne, chili powder, cilantro, coriander, cumin, oregano, pepper, salt, turmeric
Foods That Go Well with Paprika (Regular or Smoked)
Proteins, Legumes, Nuts, Seeds: Almonds, beans (in general, esp. black beans, chickpeas), beef, black-eye peas, chicken, eggs, lamb, lentils, nuts (in general), pecans, pork, sausage, seafood, split peas, tahini
Vegetables: Bell peppers, carrots, chiles, eggplant, garlic, greens (bitter, i.e., collards), kale, mushrooms, onions, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, sauerkraut, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, vegetables (in general)
Fruits: Avocados, lemons, limes, oranges
Grains and Grain Products: Corn, rice, seitan
Dairy and Non-Dairy Products: Cheese (in general), sour cream, yogurt
Other Foods: Oil (esp. olive), stock, vinegar (i.e., balsamic, sherry)
Paprika (regular or smoked) has been used in the following cuisines and dishes…
Casseroles, chili, deviled eggs, Eastern European cuisine (esp. Hungarian), egg dishes (i.e., hard-boiled, omelets, scrambled), goulash, hummus, marinades, paella, pasta dishes, purees, salad dressings, salads (i.e., macaroni, pasta), sauces (i.e., cream, tomato), soups, Southwestern (U.S.) cuisine, Spanish cuisine (esp. smoked paprika), spreads, stews, stroganoff (i.e., mushroom), tempeh bacon, Texas cuisine
Suggested Food and Flavor Combos Using Paprika
Add paprika to any of the following combinations…
Garlic + Olive Oil + Seitan
Mushrooms + Sour Cream
Tomato Sauce with Roasted Garlic and Paprika Recipe https://www.seriouseats.com/tomato-sauce-with-roasted-garlic-and-paprika-recipe
Cajun Spice Mix https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/149221/cajun-spice-mix/
BBQ Spice Rub https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/229329/bbq-spice-rub/
Oven-Baked Potato Slices https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/273572/oven-baked-potato-slices/
Taco Bell Seasoning Copycat https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/236257/taco-bell-seasoning-copycat/
Copycat Lawry’s Seasoned Salt https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/238702/copycat-lawrys-seasoned-salt/
Hungarian Mushroom Soup https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/17897/hungarian-mushroom-soup/
Quick and Crispy Home Fries https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/258117/quick-crispy-home-fries/
Smoky Vegetarian Collard Greens https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/256591/smoky-vegetarian-collard-greens/
Air Fryer Pumpkin Seeds https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/269968/air-fryer-pumpkin-seeds/
Beef and Prime Rib Rub https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/263435/beef-and-prime-rib-rub/
Homemade Portuguese Chicken https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/274690/homemade-portuguese-chicken/
Blackened Salmon Fillets https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/36487/blackened-salmon-fillets/
Joachim, David. (2010) The Food Substitutions Bible. 2nd Edition. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Robert Rose, Inc.
Page, Karen. (2014) The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Julia W. Klee (Judi) began her journey enjoying “all things food” in elementary school when she started preparing meals for her family. That love of food blossomed into a quest to learn more and more about health and wellness as related to nutrition. She went on to earn a BS Degree in Food and Nutrition, then an MS Degree in Nutrition. She has taught nutrition and related courses at the college level to pre-nursing and exercise science students. Her hunger to learn didn’t stop upon graduation from college. She continues to research on a regular basis about nutrition as it relates to health. Her hope is to help as many people as possible to enjoy foods that promote health and wellness.