Pimentón, Spanish smoked paprika or Spanish paprika is an essential ingredient in Spanish gastronomy. The rich, strong and smoky aroma as well as the deep crimson red colour gives any Spanish savoury dish a beautiful intense depth of flavour as well as a gorgeous vibrant colour.
The origin of Spanish paprika.
Paprika is a spice powder made from dried chilli peppers of the Capsicum annuum variety originally cultivated in the Americas. It was introduced in Spain at the end of the 15th century when Christopher Columbus and the explorers brought back the seeds in their ships. It was in the monasteries of Yuste and Guadalupe in Extremadura, western Spain where they started cultivating the peppers.
Since the taste was similar to that of pepper coming from Asia, which was called pimienta in Spanish, the paprika from the Americas was given a similar name, pimiento.
What is Spanish smoked paprika?
Pimentón de la Vera
With cool summers and rainy, frost free winters, the climate of the La Vera region was perfect to start cultivating the peppers. They soon discovered that the peppers were more mild in flavour than the ones brought back from Asia and started introducing them into their local cuisine. To make the paprika powder they needed dry peppers, but since the climate in the region is too humid in autumn when they are harvested, the monks decided to slowly smoke-dry the peppers in the smoke of the fires made from local oak wood.
The smoking is a long and slow process taking about 2 weeks in total. Every day the peppers need to be turned to allow even smoking. After the drying process the stalks and seeds are removed and the peppers are then ground in traditional stone mills.
It is this proces of slow roasting, slow drying and the grounding process that gives the pimentón de la Vera its unique and distinct flavour with smoky undertones. In order to maintain the characteristic flavour, aroma and colour, a quality control of ‘Denominación de Origin’ (or D.O.) has been given to the production process.
The Pimentón de la Vera can be divided into three groups:
- Pimentón dulce: Dulce literally means ‘sweet’ but can also be described as mild. It is made with the Bola and Jaranda varieties. As Spanish cuisine is mainly mild, this is by far the most preferred, used and produced type of pimentón.
- Pimentón agridulce or Ocal: This is bittersweet or mildly spicy to the palate and is made with the Jaranda and Jariza varieties.
- Pimentón picante: This hot version is produced with the Jaranda, Jariza and Jeromín varieties. It is the Jeromín pepper that defines the level of spiciness.
Pimentón de Murcia
The second important region to produce pimentón is Murcia, in the south-eastern part of Spain, south of the Costa Blanca, on the Mediterranean coast. The climate in autumn is much warmer in the Murcia region so the peppers are dried in the sun, whereas in the La Vera region the climate is too humid to leave them to dry naturally.
In Murcia, pimentón is produced from the Bola variety, which is a mild and sweet pepper with a bright red colour. Also this region has its own D.O. Pimentón de Murcia.
Regular paprika vs smoked paprika
Paprika powder is a versatile, very commonly used spice which is present in most people’s spice cabinets and is easy to use in many types of cuisine.
So what is the difference between paprika and smoked paprika?
Paprika is made from dried and ground peppers from the Capsicum Annuum family which contains both mild and hot chilli peppers. For the sweet paprika powder most people know and use, the milder pepper version is used. The sweet paprika generally adds mild tones of flavour to a dish and is more often used for its lovely bright red colour.
So the main difference is that the paprika most people use is very mild in flavour where the smoked paprika or pimentón has a very powerful and distinct flavour. This means that it can fast overpower a dish when using too much compared to the sweet version. Also not all dishes call for a smoky aroma in which case it is best to use the sweet version or just a pinch of pimentón, but both varieties add a lovely crimson red and vibrant colour to any dish.
How to use smoked paprika
Spanish pimentón is commonly used in Spanish cuisine and is an essential ingredient in almost any savoury Spanish dish. It is used to give flavour and colour to cured meats, like chorizo, lomo and cecina.
Be sure to try this chorizo in red wine to experience a taste of smoked paprika spice.
But, when using it to flavour food, don’t use it as you would use the common sweet paprika powder. It has a very pronounced and intense flavour, both the mild and spicy version, so use it sparingly when often 1 or even half a teaspoon is enough to infuse the distinct smokiness in to the food.
Can I substitute smoked paprika with regular paprika?
In Spain, pimentón is readily available in most supermarkets and local markets. Outside of Spain it might be more difficult to source, and is often only available in specialty shops or large supermarkets with a foreign food section. When a recipe calls for smoked paprika it will not be the same if you substitute it with regular paprika powder as the smokiness is really distinct and has a completely different taste.
The good news is that when you buy a packet of Spanish smoked paprika it will last for a while since you’ll only need a very small bit if it for that extra flavour. Keep it in a dry and dark place and it will last for up to 12 months.