The Untold Truth Of Paprika

If you're a fan of deviled eggs, you probably have some paprika sitting in your spice rack as we speak. But this vibrant red spice has so much more to offer than being a trusty sidekick to hard-boiled eggs. With a history stretching back hundreds of years and spanning multiple continents, paprika has been used for centuries to add rich flavor and color to a wide variety of recipes, from traditional Hungarian dishes to macaroni and cheese. There are a variety of different types of paprika, each with its own unique characteristics, taste, and hue.

Because of all these unexpected nuances, we decided to take a deep dive into this popular spice and see what paprika is really all about. We rounded up the most interesting facts we could find so that the next time you reach for that red spice on the shelf, you'll be an expert in how it got there and how to use it.

Paprika is made with ground red peppers

According to the spice experts at the McCormick Science Institute, paprika comes from ripe, red peppers of the plant species Capsicum annum that have been dried and ground to a fine powder that's brilliantly red and mildly sweet. While Capsicum annum includes a multitude of different types of peppers, paprika typically comes from the sweeter ones, like bell peppers. These fall on the milder end of the heat spectrum because they contain less capsaicin (the molecular compound that makes peppers hot) than their spicier counterparts. 

Paprika peppers need lots of sunshine, and they thrive in temperatures between 70 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit. They also do best in loamy soil, which The Spruce describes as the ideal mix of sand, silt, and clay (loamy soil is great at retaining nutrients and helping excess water drain away from plants' roots). As they grow, the plants produce little white flowers that, once pollinated, turn into tiny green peppers that ripen to red. 

Unlike plants that need pollinators, like bees, to move pollen from one plant to another, Capsicum annum peppers are self-pollinating. That means pollen distributed between flowers that bloom on the same plant is enough for pollination. Typically, you can leave peppers alone and they'll self-pollinate just fine, but some cultivators will give them a hand by gently shaking the plants to distribute the pollen or taking a paintbrush and transferring pollen from one flower to the next (via Gardening Know How). 

It's commonly confused with cayenne pepper and chili powder

There are lots of red powders in the spice aisle, but they aren't all interchangeable. Cayenne pepper and chili powder, for example, look a lot like paprika but have very different flavors. 

Let's start with the differences between paprika and cayenne. Named after a hot chili grown around the Cayenne River in France, Cayenne pepper comes from a hot variety of Capsicum annum whereas paprika comes from milder ones. It has more of a straight peppery flavor while paprika is sweeter, fruitier, and, in the case of smoked paprika, smokier. While paprika can range from mild to spicy depending on where it comes from and the peppers that are used, cayenne pepper is always going to be the hotter of the two. 

It's also easy to confuse paprika with chili powder. While they're similar in color, paprika is made only from sweet peppers found in places like Hungary and Spain, while The Spruce Eats explains that chili powder is actually a mix of several different spices. Chili powder can contain paprika, but it includes other spices, too, like ground hot peppers, cumin, garlic, and salt.

You can buy hot, sweet, or smoked paprika

Circling back to the many different types of paprika, we'll start by breaking them down according to flavor. While McCormick ascribes many different flavor notes to paprika, from astringent and bitter to earthy and sweet, The Kitchn outlines three major categories: sweet, hot, or smoked.

Sweet paprika is what you'll encounter most often at the grocery store or in recipes, labeled simply as "paprika." It's made with sweet red peppers and has a mild, fruity taste. Hot paprika uses spicy peppers and often includes some of the seeds and membranes of the pepper, as that's where most of its heat is concentrated (via The Spruce Eats). To make milder paprika, these parts of the pepper are typically removed prior to drying and grinding. You can often tell if paprika is hot or sweet based on its color. Orange is the hottest and dark red is the sweetest. Smoked paprika, the last of the three categories, is made with sweet or hot paprika peppers smoked over an oak fire after they're dried.

Paprika can also be classified by origin. Basic or standard paprika often comes from California and South America, while Hungarian paprika comes only from Hungary and Spanish paprika comes only from Spain (via MasterClass). BBC Good Food notes Hungarian paprika is typically sweeter and has a noticeable but subtle kick (though it does have some pretty hot varieties) while Spanish paprika can be dulce (sweet), agridulce (bittersweet), picante (hot), or picante pimenton (smoked).

Paprika is the national spice of Hungary

Kolocsa and Szeged, two neighboring towns in Hungary, produce more paprika than anywhere else in the world. In fact, paprika is Hungary's national spice and Kalocsa, a town surrounded by acres upon acres of paprika plants, is considered the paprika capital of the world. It even hosts a Paprika Festival every fall and is home to the one and only Paprika Museum.

It should come as no surprise then that paprika is a major staple in Hungarian households, where it's used nearly every day in dishes from goulash to chicken paprikash. Taste Hungary describes how liberal spoonfuls of paprika sauteed with onions are the foundation of Hungarian flavor. It also notes George Lang, author of "The Cuisine of Hungary," described paprika's role in Hungarian recipes well when he wrote, "paprika is to the Hungarian cuisine as it is to its conversation — not just a superficial garnish, but an integral element, a very special and unique flavor instantly recognizable." According to Spiceography, even the word "paprika" is Hungarian. 

While there was a time when paprika peppers had to be hung outside and dried in the sun before being ground into a spice, commercial ovens have sprung up around Hungary to keep up with demand. Nevertheless, some Hungarian farmers continue to make their own paprika powder at home.

The Hungarian paprika you see at the store is probably 'noble sweet'

While Hungary grows so much paprika that local shops can offer up to 20 different varietiesThe Kitchn notes there are officially eight different grades. These are: különleges or "special" paprika (mild in flavor and the most vibrant red), csípősmentes csemege or "delicate" paprika (very light and mild in flavor), csemege or "gourmet" paprika (can be hot or mild), csípős csemege or "hot" paprika (packs more of a punch), édesnemes or "noble sweet" paprika (moderately hot with a bright red color), félédes or "semi-sweet" paprika (another one with medium heat), rózsa or "rose" paprika (moderately hot and pale red in color), and erős (the hottest Hungarian paprika of all and light brown to orange in color).

Of these many varieties, MasterClass notes "noble sweet" is the most commonly exported, so if you see Hungarian sweet paprika at a store here in the United States that's probably what you're getting.

Paprika has Mexican roots

Even though it's the national spice of Hungary, paprika actually originated in Mexico, according to Spiceography. The pepper plants used to make paprika are native to central Mexico and didn't appear in Europe until Christopher Columbus brought them over to Spain in the 1400s. From there, they spread to countries like France, England, and Hungary, where they were first used as decorative houseplants and, in some cases, medicine before their value as a spice was discovered. 

When paprika pepper plants reached Hungary, they proved perfectly suited for the climate of Kalocsa and Szeged, where they are still cultivated in massive quantities today. It's that unique climate that gives Hungarian paprika its unique flavors and colors. And, interestingly, all paprika from that part of the world started out hot. It wasn't until the 1920s that a sweet pepper plant was grafted onto a traditional paprika pepper plant to give Hungarian paprika the subtle sweetness it continues to be known for.

It's good for so much more than deviled eggs

Paprika is a must for a well-stocked spice rack. The mild flavor of sweet paprika (the one that's simply labeled "paprika" at the store) is typically the most versatile and a good one to start with. Add it to deviled eggs, fried eggs, potato salad, spice rubs, marinades, hummus, sausages, roasted vegetables, and more to add a pop of color and a subtle hint of sweetness. Hot or smoked varieties of Hungarian paprika or Spanish paprika have a stronger flavor, so save those for recipes where you want the paprika to really shine as the star ingredient. And, whether you prefer sweet, hot, or smoked paprika, remember that they all have distinct flavors. That means they can't always be swapped out for each other in a recipe. 

Regardless of the variety you choose, McCormick recommends minimizing the amount of time you expose paprika to heat as it can negatively impact both the color and flavor (so add it to your dishes towards the end when they're just about done).

Paprika belongs to the same family of plants as a potato

According to the McCormick Science Institute, paprika peppers actually belong to the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family — the same family of plants as potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant. According to Britannica, the nightshade family includes around 2,300 different species of flowering plants, many of which end up in the produce aisle. They're nutritious staples across a variety of cultures because they're rich in nutrients like antioxidants (via WebMD). A single bell pepper has more than enough vitamin C for the entire day and tomatoes provide lycopene, an antioxidant that may lower the risk of certain types of cancer and heart disease.

Even though they're incredibly nutritious, there's a chance you've seen nightshades on a list of foods to avoid. If you have, it's probably because they contain small amounts of alkaloids, naturally occurring compounds that can be harmful in large doses (some nightshades, like tobacco, are actually poisonous) and are thought by some to promote inflammation. But don't go cutting nightshade vegetables out of your diet just yet. As registered dietitian Ryanne Lachman explained to Cleveland Clinic, "these foods are incredibly healthy and offer more health benefits than costs." That said, it's possible to be intolerant of any food, so if you think you might have a sensitivity to nightshades, Lachman suggests cutting them out for a few weeks to see how you respond.

Paprika has antioxidant properties

Remember how nightshades are rich in antioxidants? Paprika is technically a nightshade, so it provides antioxidants, too. In fact, a tablespoon of paprika provides 15% of the recommended daily amount of vitamin E and 20% of the recommended daily amount of vitamin A (these are two of the major antioxidant vitamins). Per WebMD, it also contains capsaicin, an antioxidant compound that makes peppers hot and has been shown to have benefits from decreasing the risk of cancer and heart disease to improving immune health, and carotenoids, the antioxidants responsible for paprika's rich red hue.

According to Healthline, antioxidants are important because they help combat the effects of free radicals in our bodies. Free radicals are compounds linked to air pollution, cigarette smoke, alcohol, radiation, etc. that, in high amounts, are associated with conditions from diabetes and heart disease to cancer. Healthline notes the antioxidants in paprika have also been linked to healthy vision, reduced inflammation, improved cholesterol levels, and improved blood sugar control.

That said, paprika is typically used in small amounts, so you shouldn't depend on it for all your antioxidant needs. Make sure you're getting a varied diet that includes antioxidant-rich foods like fruits (especially berries), vegetables, green tea, and — our favorites — coffee and dark chocolate.

Ground spices like paprika do go bad

While spices don't exactly spoil in the same way as foods like milk do, they will lose their flavor over time thanks to a process called oxidation (via PureWow). According to Bon Appétit, ground spices like paprika tend to go bad more quickly than whole spices, like whole peppercorns or cinnamon sticks. As BBC Bitesize explains, exposing food to oxygen causes its chemical composition to change over time. It's these shifts in chemical composition that slowly degrade color and flavor. That's why ground spices should technically be replaced every three months, while whole spices can last 8 to 10 months. Don't worry — if you're reading this wide-eyed thinking about the five-year-old spices sitting in your kitchen, you're probably not alone. It just might be time to consider a spice rack overhaul if you're looking for the absolute freshest flavor. 

Paprika in particular is vulnerable to light and air, so MasterClass recommends storing it in a cool, dark place (we recommend your pantry or a cabinet that's not directly above the oven) and using an airtight container to keep out oxygen as much as possible. Metal tins are great because they protect the paprika from light. If it's stored correctly, BBC Good Food says ground paprika will last a couple of months.

Paprika contains naturally occurring sugar

Paprika actually contains as much as 6% sugar, which explains its characteristic sweetness. It's important to note, however, that the sugar in paprika is naturally occurring sugar as opposed to added sugar. Naturally occurring sugar is there because nature put it there, and you'll find it in a variety of nutritious foods like peppers and other veggies, fruit, milk, and whole grains (via the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics).

Added sugar, on the other hand, is sugar added during the manufacturing process –- for example to a can of Coke or a box of cake mix –- or right before consuming (like the spoonful you might add to a morning cup of joe). It comes in many different forms, including table sugar, raw sugar, coconut sugar, honey, molasses, corn syrup, anything ending in "ose" (like dextrose, fructose, and glucose), and many more. You won't find any of that in pure paprika. 

That said, because paprika does have a fair amount of naturally occurring sugar, it can burn relatively quickly. That's another reason McCormick says it's best to avoid high heat and long cook times. Just watch it closely and you should be fine.

Hot oil brings out the full flavor, aroma, and color of paprika

Speaking of cooking with paprika, an exception to the "add at the end" rule is any recipe that starts with frying paprika in hot oil or butter. This technique is called "blooming" a spice, and according to Taste Hungary, blooming paprika is essential to bring out the best of its flavor. It's also a technique used in many Hungarian dishes. While this step intensifies and enhances the flavor (and color and scent) beautifully when done correctly, The Spruce Eats cautions against cooking the paprika too long since, when it burns, it can turn bitter. 

MasterClass also explains how to make a flavorful paprika-infused oil at home, which is an easy way to up your chef game. Simply heat quality olive oil over low heat for a few minutes, just until it's warm. Then take your pan off the heat and add a generous helping of paprika, stirring to distribute the spice throughout the oil. Leave the oil alone to infuse for an hour, strain it through a coffee filter or cheesecloth, and that's it, your paprika-infused oil is ready to go. Keep it in the fridge for up to a week and use it to baste veggies or chicken, drizzle over hummus, or sprinkle into the cooking oil when you're making fried eggs.

Paprika isn't just used in food

Paprika has uses beyond the kitchen, too. Because of its rich red color, Bespoken Spices writes that it has been used as a natural dye in cosmetics for hundreds of years. Paprika can dye hair as well. It's even recommended as a topical face mask. As dermatologist Arisa Ortiz told Allure, paprika has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory benefits that can help reduce acne and its antioxidants "help absorb free radicals that break down collagen in the skin" to "help your skin look supple and plump." Allure also talked to dermatologist Ava Shambam about paprika, and she explained that the spice can help widen the blood vessels in your face (temporarily, of course) to give it a nice, healthy flush, working as a sort of natural blush. To make your own paprika face mask at home, Ortiz recommends mixing it with honey. Honey is a natural moisturizer and, in our opinion, makes the mask taste pretty great when you accidentally lick it off your lips. 

Since paprika's rich red color can easily stain (hence why it's great for cosmetics and hair dye), it can also be used to dye fabric. Just be careful not to stain your fingers, too!

You can substitute paprika in a pinch

If you find yourself without paprika, it's possible you have a substitute on hand. These won't be exactly the same, but they're better than nothing in a pinch.

You can replace sweet paprika with chili powder in equal amounts, cayenne pepper or Aleppo pepper powder in half the amount, or red pepper flakes in a quarter the amount. Then add a dash of sugar to replicate the sweetness. Other substitutes include tomato juice, a few shakes of hot sauce, or crushed black peppercorns.

To recreate the flavor of hot paprika, MasterClass recommends using cayenne, Aleppo pepper powder, red pepper flakes, red chili powder, or hot sauce, just without the addition of sugar. And, if you're looking to duplicate the smokiness of smoked or Spanish paprika, chipotle powder or crushed ancho powder will do.

You can also make paprika at home with fresh bell peppers. A red pepper will give you the most authentic substitute, but even green, yellow, or orange peppers can give you some of the mildly sweet flavor so prized in paprika. Just dry them out in an oven or dehydrator, then grind them into a powder (you can use your food processor). Or, if you don't feel like all that effort, just chop your red pepper into small pieces and sauté before adding to recipes like stews, soups, or roasts. It will taste fresher and crispier than paprika powder, but you'll get a hint of that signature sweet pepper taste.