For those of us who love cooking, there’s a natural inclination to want to know the science behind what we’re doing. Why does green tea taste so different when you use water at 180 degrees instead of 190? Why do onions make you cry? What’s the difference between making stock with chicken feet and without?
Are these questions worth answering? They can be, but they can also be a distraction. If you’ve ever been in the kitchen with someone who wants to explain the science behind every little thing they’re doing and why it works, you’ll know how frustrating it can be. At best, it takes forever; at worst, it spoils your appetite.
The answer to “why smoked paprika?” is no different from the answer to “why salt?” or “why deep fry?” Sometimes this stuff just tastes good. Sometimes there are good reasons for that–smoked paprika was originally made as a way of preserving peppers in a humid climate without refrigeration–but sometimes there aren’t. Just because we don’t know why something works doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. Smoked paprika tastes good, and that’s all we need to know.
I have no idea. I did it because I read that Spanish cooks use smoked paprika. I was trying to cook Spanish.
I do know why they smoke the peppers, though. Any food that is preserved by smoking takes on the flavor of smoke. And any food cooked with smoked paprika tastes smoky too. So when you add smoked paprika to something you are essentially adding smoke flavor at the same time as red pepper flavor, and in a very concentrated form.
But why would anyone want smoke flavor? It’s hard to think of something whose taste is less appealing than smoke, except maybe ash. But according to Harold McGee, smoke has an almost mystical appeal to our species: “Smoke . . . combines in a single sensation some of our most basic taste urges—saltiness, meatiness, and bitterness—and triggers an ancient reflex that associates it with fire and thus with safety and comfort.”
In other words, we love it because we’re wired to love it: it reminds us of cooking meat over an open fire, which was necessary for our survival for most of our evolutionary history. It’s a funny association; if someone offered me a cookie flavored with liquid smoke, I’d be pretty suspicious about whether it was safe or comfortable to
A lot of people are surprised to learn that we smoke our paprika. There are two reasons for doing this.
First, and most importantly, it tastes great. We’ve tried all sorts of paprika, from the fancy imported stuff to supermarket brands, and none of it has the flavor you get from a good smoked paprika. This is particularly important in dishes like paella and gumbo, which use a lot of the spice.
Second, it looks great. Our smoked paprika is bright red with a distinctive russet sheen. The contrast with other ingredients makes it really pop, especially in white-based sauces or on lighter meats like chicken or fish.
If you’re worried about the smoky taste being too strong–don’t be! You can always use less than a recipe calls for if you want to tone down the effect, but we’ve never had anyone complain that our paprika was too smoky (or even smoky at all).
Years ago, I ate at a restaurant in Spain that specialized in the food of Extremadura. The star dish was a stew made with pimentón de la Vera, the local smoked paprika. It was sensational: the smokiness seemed to permeate the whole dish, and yet it was not like eating barbecue. There was something about it that made me think about what smoke does to meat and cheese, but this was neither meat nor cheese.
I have been trying to replicate that dish at home ever since. I’ve never quite succeeded—I suspect they use ingredients I can’t get here—but one thing I’ve learned is to use pimentón de la Vera whenever I can. It makes everything taste better.
What’s interesting is how much better it makes things taste compared to other smoked paprikas I’ve tried, which are not bad themselves. La Chinata is the most widely available brand in the US (and probably elsewhere), and it’s very good; you should be able to find it at any decent grocery store or online. But pimentón de la Vera seems to have an extra layer of smoky complexity, even if you can only find the relatively inexpensive stuff like this bag of La Dalia or this jar of El Av
Smoked paprika is not a new ingredient. It has been around for years and has been used in many recipes. However, I find that the smoky flavor and aroma make it a stand out from other ingredients.
I have noticed that smoked paprika is gaining popularity in the US, but it still remains an underused and often misunderstood spice. Although smoked paprika is only one variety of this spice, there are several varieties available in different regions of Spain. There are also varieties from Hungary and Mexico as well as other countries.
The varieties of smoked paprika are identifiable by their color, which ranges from bright red to dark brown with notes of orange or purple. In addition, each variety has its own distinct flavor profile which is determined by the pepper that was used to produce it and how long it was dried and smoked before being ground into powder.
When you see “paprika” or “Spanish paprika” listed on the ingredients list of a recipe, chances are it’s referring to milder sweet or hot varieties of this spice; however, if you’re entering the world of cooking with smoked paprika for the first time, you may be better off starting with something more robust like pimenton de la Vera picante (hot) or P
Because it’s delicious.
There are many other spices that I also love and use often. But there’s something about smoked paprika that I can’t replicate with any other ingredient. It tastes good in almost anything, sweet or savory, and it has an earthy, smoky flavor that doesn’t dominate the way smoked meats do.
I sprinkle it on my sandwiches instead of pepper, mix it into yogurt for a quick dip for vegetables, and use it in place of salt in some recipes. It’s great on popcorn and roasted potatoes, and it’s one of the few spices that is delicious sprinkled directly onto fruit, especially strawberries.
You can find smoked paprika at most grocery stores, but if you’re having trouble locating it near you, Amazon sells quite a few varieties.
Smoked paprika is a revelation. I’m not sure why it’s so much better than other kinds of paprika, but it is.
The first time I used it was the night before we launched Y Combinator. We were scrambling to finish the design for Hacker News and were still changing things around midnight when Paul suggested we use a pink color for links. So I went looking for one, and after trying two or three different shades of pink, I settled on this shade that was colored with smoked paprika. It looked good, and since we’re hackers, we decided to leave it in.
And then the next day Hacker News took off like a rocket. So ever since then I’ve been tempted to believe that smoked paprika causes things to take off like rockets. But I’m also superstitious enough not to want to test this theory by trying any other colors.
So my new startup has smoked paprika in its logo too: