Paprika Submitted photo

An unfortunate local purchasing experience inspires this week’s column. I sent my husband to the health food store to buy Hungarian sweet paprika. What the store sold was, for all intents and purposes, a generic version. The label merely said “paprika.” The salesperson told him paprika is all the same – one of those “mostly true” statements in that paprika means “pepper.”

There are three kinds of paprika. They vary in spiciness from mild and sweet to less flavorful, but hot. Sometimes I want hot for a bright kick. Often, for color and comfort, I go with mild and sweet. As a garnish I use a bland paprika. The right choice dictates recipe success. So you see my dilemma. I was making sweet pepper relish. Do I leave it out or use a substitute?

What is paprika?

Paprika is from mixtures of dried peppers in the capsicum anuum family, of which the shortlist includes hot chili peppers, cayenne, poblano, Aleppo, and sweet. Ground paprika gets its heat and color (carotenoids) from the seeds and variety of the pepper.

Paprika is a global spice that originated in Central Mexico. From there, it went to Spain. After that, nearly every other country adapted a culinary liking for this aromatic spice.

There are three primary varieties of paprika.

Basic paprika is predominant in America. It’s good as a garnish.

Hungarian paprika is Hungary’s national spice and my preference. In Hungary, street market stalls are full of paprika varieties ranging from sweet and mild to hot and spicy. Taste and smell guide the culinary artist in choosing a suitable combination. They may be looking for sweet and fruity, intense, spicy hot, or delicate. The Noble Sweet, if you’re lucky enough to find it is a nice balance of pungent, sweet, and spicy.

Spanish paprika is a gourmet favorite. It’s mild, medium, or spicy. The chili peppers are dried over oak fires, giving them a smoky quality. However, sun or kiln-dried peppers lack smoky notes.

Now back to my dilemma. Experience prompted me not to take a chance on the locally bought paprika. I substituted crushed red pepper flakes. I wasn’t going for smoky, but if I were, I would have opted for chipotle powder.

What dishes are enhanced by paprika? The most common is Hungarian goulash. Goulash is a dish that, for an authentic, earthy, comforting, flavorful experience, you need the right paprika.

When roasting chicken, I like to use a dry rub of Hungarian spicy paprika, onion and garlic powder, salt, and black pepper, and dried basil, rosemary, sage, and thyme. In a roasting pan, coat the chicken with melted butter or olive oil and liberally sprinkle with the dry rub. Cut chunks of vegetables, season with salt, pepper and herbs and arrange around the chicken. Bake at 400°F (204°C) for 10 min. Dial temp back to 350°F (190°C) for about 50 mins. until chicken internal temp is at least 180°F (82°C)

My relish turned out addictively seductive. The recipe using paprika is on my website.

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