Paprika (pimentón in Spanish) is one of the most important and widely used ingredients in Spanish cuisine. There are many different varieties of paprika including sweet, bittersweet, and hot, each with their own distinctive smell and taste. And they are used to flavour and add colour to many typical Spanish recipes.
Sun-dried or smoked?
Pimentón is made by finely grinding various dried capsicum peppers including the nora, bola, jaranda, jariza, jeromin, chili, ocal and bell varieties. They are then sun-dried or smoked depending on the region.
The smoked variety has the most distinctive smell and flavour and is the most widely-used in Spain. Like wine, the best Spanish paprika has its own Denominación de Origen (DO) to ensure it is produced the correct way.
There are two paprika DOs in Spain, the first, and most famous, is in Cáceres in the region of Extremadura – the original home of Spanish paprika. Peppers were introduced there over 500 years ago when they were first brought back from the Americas by Christopher Columbus.
The other DO is in the region of Murcia where the sunny conditions are perfect for growing peppers as well as a host of other fruit and vegetables. Such is its suitability for growing, the regions is known as the Garden Kingdom.
The origins of Spanish paprika
As with many ingredients introduced to Spain from the Americas, it was monks who pioneered the growing, drying and milling techniques of the peppers. In Extremadura, the brotherhood of the Monastery of Guadalupe in Cáceres first started cultivating the peppers and the paprika producing process was further developed by the Monastery of Yuste in La Vera. By the 17th century, paprika production had grown to an industrial scale.
How paprika is made
In La Vera, the peppers are dried in split-level smoke houses. On the lower level, holm oak wood is burnt and the smoke rises to the upper level where the peppers are laid on racks. They are turned on a daily basis for up to two weeks until completely dry. This smoking process gives Pimentón de la Vera an unmistakable aroma that has blessed Spanish cuisine for centuries.
The popularity of paprika amongst the Monks soon spread to the Monastery of Ñora in Murcia where Paprika production also began with a passion. In Murcia, the long, hot sunshine continues well into the autumn when the peppers are harvested. This means the peppers can be dried naturally in the sunshine. As a result the traditional paprika of the Murcia has its own distinctive flavour.
Once dried, the peppers from both regions follow a similar milling process: They are taken to paprika mills, the stalks and unwanted parts are removed and the peppers are ground very slowly to avoid spoiling the flavour and colour of the paprika. Once milled the paprika is sold in tins.
Popular types of paprika
Here are some of the most common types of paprika (remember, the best quality paprika display the Denominación de Origen on their label):
- Sweet paprika (sometimes called mild) or Pimentón Dulce – This type of paprika is normally smoke-dried (ahumado) and made from red bell-type peppers. It is the mildest form of paprika. It is also produced in a sun-dried form that has a more subtle flavour.
- Medium paprika (sometimes called bittersweet) or Pimentón Agridulce – This paprika is made from pointed peppers and has a slightly hotter taste. It is nearly always smoked-dried and is good for all-round use where a smoky flavour and a gentle heat are required. This type is often used in the production of spicy sausages such as chorizo.
- Hot paprika or Pimentón Picante – This type uses the hotter varieties of peppers and gives a fiery heat as well as a smoky flavour.
(Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia)