Mother Earth Living

Cooking with Paprika

The sweet and noble spice.
By Judy Monroe
August/September 1995
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Paprikas dry on the plants in a Hungarian field.
Photograph courtesy of the University of Horticulture and Food Industry, Budapest.
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6 Paprika Recipes

• Black Bean Soup with Red Paprika Sauce
• Paprikás Csirke (Paprika Chicken)
• Paprika Swordfish Kabobs with Yogurt Mint Paprika Sauce
• Summer Squash with Tomatoes and Paprika
• Red Shrimp and Vegetable Salad
• Rosy Corn Fritters 

The potato salad needs a little color, so you reach for the paprika and discover that it's all clumped together because it's so old. How about acquiring a fresh jar of paprika and a new attitude toward using it? You may discover why the Hungarians claim this pepper as their national spice. Indeed, paprika is beloved by Hungarians, who describe it as nemes édes—“noble and sweet”. With its unusual flavor and brilliant color, paprika adds richness and beauty to many ­savory dishes. The word “paprika” is also used for the sweet, thin-walled red peppers (Capsicum annuum, Longum group, of the Solanaceae, the tomato-potato family) which when dried are ground to make the spice.

Although today we usually associate paprika with Eastern Europe, particularly Hungary, the peppers are actually New World natives. Christopher Columbus, in search of spice trade routes, found a variety of red peppers, both pungent and sweet. His crew observed that natives dried and ground certain types to flavor food, and he brought peppers back with him to Spain. By the late sixteenth century, the Portuguese and Spaniards were growing their own peppers and making what came to be known as paprika, often mixing the dried peppers with other spices before grinding them into a fine powder. Paprika’s use spread throughout Europe and then to the tropics of Asia and Africa. In the seventeenth century, cooks in Italy and on the Balkan Peninsula regularly added paprika along with other spices to their soups, meats, and salads. Many Indian curry mixtures included paprika.

It was the Hungarians, however, who elevated paprika to star status. Most historians credit its introduction in Hungary to the neighboring Bulgarians or the invading Turks who occupied the region from 1526 to 1676. Before the end of the sixteenth century, Hungarian peasants began adding the red spice to their stews and soups as a cheaper substitute for the costly black pepper. The use of paprika was initially disdained by the upper classes, but as more and more people tried dishes laced with paprika and enjoyed its taste and handsome color, its use spread. By the mid-1880s, all economic classes in Hungary had embraced paprika. Hungarians use it pure, unmixed with other spices, and they have developed an enormous array of national dishes that feature paprika in a central role. At one time, they even made a paprika brandy.

Which Is The Real Paprika?

Some time ago, the owner of an American seed company asked a friend who was visiting Hungary to buy paprika seeds. She returned with more than a dozen types, all labeled “paprika”. Which was the traditional Hungarian paprika? They all were. In Hungary, paprika means “pepper”, of which Hungarians grow a huge variety in many shapes, sizes, and colors. The spice paprikas are bred for their flavor, fragrance, intensity of color, ability to hold that color, and their suitability for mechanized harvest.

The paprika peppers grown in Spain and Morocco are round and about the size of apricots. In the Balkan countries, the paprika pepper is longer and conical, with a pointed tip.

In the United States and in the international spice trade, the word “paprika” refers to a sweet (nonpungent), dried, bright red powder. The American Spice Trade Association sets color standards for imported paprika. The United States, which also produces its own paprika, buys most of its imported paprika from Spain and Morocco, as well as small quantities from Brazil, Bulgaria, India, Italy, and the former Yugoslavia. Until recently, Hungary was our second largest supplier of paprika, but with the economic upheaval following the collapse of Communism, paprika production plummeted. Most of the Hungarian crop now goes to Europe to meet its large demand for high-quality paprika. Economists predict that as Hungary’s economy regains strength in coming years, more of its famous paprika will again be grown and exported. The U.S. paprika industry began after World War II and today exports paprika worldwide. The Southwest is the prime growing region.

Paprika imported into the United States is processed into powder where it is grown rather than being shipped whole to the United States and then ground, as most other spices are. U.S. food manufacturers add paprika to sausages, bologna, hot dogs, cheeses, soups, salad dressings, sauces, and a host of other products.

Harvesting and processing vary from place to place. In the United States, the peppers are dehydrated in forced-hot-air tunnels or stainless-steel belt driers, then ground mechanically. Europeans harvest by machine or hand, then sun-cure the ripe peppers from three to twenty-five days to reduce their sugar content. Workers hang the peppers in long strands or pile them in sheltered areas until they are totally dry. Most paprika is ground mechanically, but Hungarians still stone-grind by hand a small portion of their crop; one Hungarian-American paprika importer claims that this method yields the best flavor.

The best paprika comes from the Great Hungarian Plain. The peppers are processed in Szeged, the region’s largest city, and much of the breeding work has been done there. Sweet and pungent varieties grown commercially in Hungary usually carry “Szegedi” in their names: Szegedi 47-25, Szegedi 40, Szegedi 57-13. Hungarian gardeners also grow their own at home, and at harvest time, festive garlands of bright red paprikas hang under the eaves of many homes.

Growing Paprika

There’s good news and bad news about growing paprika. The bad news: seed companies find it nearly impossible to get paprika seeds from Hungary now because supplies are low. Hungarian farmers carefully guard their stock, but paprika seed is expected to become more readily available as Hungary’s economy strengthens.

If you can’t get seeds of Hungarian paprikas, console yourself. Even experts agree that these beauties are tricky to grow. They require a long growing season, hot, sunny days, and plenty of water. Hungarian farmers often grow paprika along rivers to facilitate irrigation.

Even if you are able to obtain Hungarian paprika seeds, your homegrown paprika may not match the flavor of the imported spice. Seeds from the same paprika plants, grown in different regions, will develop fruits with their own individual flavor and aroma, depending on the soil, sunshine, rain, and harvesting techniques.

Now the good news: you can grow great-tasting American paprika, which when dried and ground can substitute for sweet Hungarian paprika in recipes. The fruits are long, conical, and flat with thin walls, although the pungency and days to maturity depend on the variety. Many measure 7 inches long. Among the cultivars available for the home gardener are Paprika Supreme, Conquistador, NuMex Sweet, Papri King, Papri Queen, Papri Mild, Almapaprika, and Papri Ase.

Because paprikas require a long, warm growing season, start seed indoors eight to ten weeks before transplanting time. Sow them 1/4 inch deep in well-drained soil. Bottom heat aids germination, which can be slow and poor. The seeds take about two weeks to sprout at 70 degrees. As soon as the seedlings emerge, move them to a sunny south window or under lights.

After the ground has warmed, the danger of frost is past, and night temperatures stay above 55 degrees, transplant the paprika plants outdoors. Choose a site with full sun and deep, well-drained, rich soil. Space the plants 18 inches apart with 2 feet between rows. Lay down a dark organic mulch or a black plastic mulch to keep the ground warm around the plants.

The paprika seedlings grow into bushy plants 24 to 30 inches tall with deep green leaves 2 to 4 inches long. The small white flowers appear in midsummer. During dry, hot days in August, water the plants often, as peppers have shallow root systems. Where summer heat is extreme, give them light shade during the hottest part of the day if possible. Stressful growing conditions such as lack of water or too much heat can add pungency to the paprikas.

Paprika, a heavy feeder, thrives on organic fertilizers such as well-rotted manure or fish emulsion, or choose an all-purpose inorganic fertilizer such as 5-10-5. Avoid using high-nitrogen fertilizers, especially when the fruits are forming; too much nitrogen encourages leaf development at the expense of fruit growth.

Mulch and regular weeding will help to keep diseases and pests at bay. Paprika is prone to the same diseases as tomatoes, including fusarium wilt and tobacco mosaic, so don’t grow paprikas in the same place as last year’s tomatoes or peppers, and don’t smoke while you’re tending them. Cutworms like young, tender paprika plants, but a paper collar 2 to 3 inches high around each plant may deter them. Pick off any snails, caterpillars, or slugs that you see feasting. Control aphids by spraying the plants with a strong stream of water.

No outdoor garden? Paprikas make fine container plants because their root system isn’t extensive. Grow paprikas in potting soil in clay or wooden containers with good drainage. Mulch, then water and fertilize regularly.

Most paprika peppers mature in 90 to 110 days after setting transplants. The fruits turn from light green to a brilliant red, and they will dry fully on the plant (at least if the weather cooperates).

To harvest, snap off the brittle stems or cut them with a sharp knife or shears. If you live in the sunny South or Southwest, you can spread your harvest over several weeks, as paprikas hold well on the plant, but in much of the United States and Canada, the growing season is too short for the paprikas to dry on the plant. When frost threatens, pick the ripe red peppers. Poke a hole in them for moisture to escape, then dry them whole in a food dehydrator or oven set at 100°F with the door ajar. In dry climates, string whole peppers and hang them in a protected place, leaving space between peppers for air circulation. Paprikas make ideal ristras (ropes of dried peppers popular in the Southwest) because of their shape, size, and brilliant color.

To grind paprikas into a fine powder, break open the dried fruits, remove the stems, seeds, and veins, and grind with a mortar and pestle or whirl in an electric spice mill or blender. Sift to remove any large pieces, then regrind.

By The Spoonful

Most Americans sprinkle paprika for decoration; we seldom use it by the spoonfuls in our everyday cooking. Hungarians I’ve spoken to tell a different story. “In Hungary, if the family gets down to their last two kilograms [about 4.4 pounds] of paprika, it’s time to buy more,” said Andrew Barna, a Hungarian-American in New Jersey. “Gravy should always be red, fragrant with plenty of paprika.”

Paprika and salt, not black pepper and salt, appear on the tables in restaurants and homes in Hungary. Paprika enhances meats, poultry, game, fish, and shellfish. Its warm, sweet flavor complements grains, especially rice and pasta, as well as eggs, cheeses, soups, stews, and sauces. It’s a great addition to spice or curry blends and in salads, and it marries well with root vegetables, cabbage, cauliflower, corn, kale, and fresh and dried beans.

In the United States, the paprika most commonly found on supermarket shelves comes from Spain. It may be colorful, but it tastes mild or bland, and it browns during cooking. Specialty food stores and larger supermarkets sell American and Hungarian paprika. Deep red American paprika, much of it grown in California, has a sweet, tomatoey flavor and is fine for garnish, but it, too, browns during cooking.

For the best flavor and color for cooked dishes, choose Hungarian paprika. The bright red-orange powder has a spicy-sweet fragrance and won’t change color during cooking. Three types are commonly available: sweet, semisweet, and hot. The heat-containing veins and seeds are removed from the pepper before grinding for sweet paprika but are included for hot paprika; semisweet is a blend of the sweet and hot types.

When buying paprika, look for a bright color and a fine, even grind. Keep the spice in a tightly covered container, and refrigerate it or store it in a cupboard away from light and heat. Because paprika loses its color and pleasant aroma over time, replace your supply at least once a year. Better yet, use it up. Experiment by adding generous amounts of paprika to your savory dishes, then delight in the classic rich taste and brilliant color this spice brings to your table.

Paprika Sources

Ground Paprika 

• Penzeys, Ltd. Spice House, PO Box 1448, Waukesha, WI 53187. Hungarian and American paprika. Catalog free.
• Paprikas Weiss Importer, 1572 Second Ave., New York, NY 10028. Hungarian paprika. Catalog free.

American Paprika Seeds
• Park Seed Co., Cokesbury Rd., Greenwood SC 29647-0001. Catalog free.
• Redwood City Seed Company, PO Box 361, Redwood City, CA 94064. Catalog $1.
• Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, 30 Irene St., Torrington, CT 06790-6627. Catalog free.


Judy Monroe is a St. Paul, Minnesota-based freelance writer on a variety of health- and food-­related topics. She has written fourteen books for children, teens, and adults, including three cookbooks. 


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