It’s the spice that makes chorizo red, stews hearty, bravas sauce spicy, Galician octopus smoky and mojo picón fiery. Pimentón, AKA Spanish paprika, is as fundamental to Spanish cooking as black pepper is to kitchens across the US.
But believe it or not, this now-timeless spice wasn’t always present in Spanish cuisine. In fact, compared to the thousands of years of gastronomic history on the Iberian Peninsula, Spanish paprika only appeared (relatively) recently.
The cuisine of Spain seems pretty mild, but look a little closer and you’ll find that aromatics and spices actually play a subtle but strong role in many dishes. And the most ubiquitous of all Spanish seasonings is paprika.
In addition to being one of our most essential kitchen staples here in Spain, Spanish paprika is now starting to pop up on ingredient lists for some of the most innovative contemporary recipes around the world. In this guide, we’ll show you everything you need to know about this crucial spice: where it comes from, how to use it, where to get it, and so much more.
Spaniards have Christopher Columbus, a convent of monks, and some funky soil to thank for the classic pop of red and punch of flavor that is now so essential to national cuisine. Five hundred years ago, pimentón was half a world away from the cuisine it has now come to define.
The capsicum annuum, the peppers used to make paprika, has dominated the fields of central Mexico for more than 2,000 years. But it wasn’t until Columbus returned from the Americas in the late 15th century, ships laden with all kinds of new flavors, that these now-iconic peppers made it to Europe.
Once they got here, they spread like wildfire.
Traders brought the peppers from Spain into the Ottoman Empire in Turkey. Turkish immigrants then took them north through the Balkans and finally to Hungary, where paprika is still to this day a staple of Hungarian cuisine.
While paprika was exploding across Europe, in Spain the peppers stayed put. In fact, they barely ventured outside the confines of a single monastery: San Jerónimo de Yuste in the western Spanish region of Extremadura. The geographical and climate conditions of this area are especially perfect for cultivating these peppers, so the monks took full advantage—first using paprika as a preservative for cured meats, and later as a seasoning for cooked dishes.
Spanish Paprika vs. Hungarian Paprika
Today, Spanish and Hungarian paprika are two of the most common varieties of the spice, with the latter arguably better known in places like the US. But the climate and preparation techniques differ greatly between Hungary and Spain, resulting in two distinct versions of the same spice.
The cooler climate in Hungary allows the peppers grown there to retain their natural sugars, resulting in a sweeter-tasting paprika. Hungarian paprika uses toasted peppers, and the final product comes in comes in eight different varieties with varying degrees of pungency and spiciness.
Meanwhile, the warmer growing conditions in Spain changes the flavor of the peppers—and the resulting paprika—quite a bit. Many (but not all) Spanish paprikas use smoked peppers (more on that in a bit!), giving Spanish pimentón its distinctive smoky flavor.
Paprika Production Regions in Spain
Paprika is so vital to Spanish cuisine that quality-control Denomination of Origin (D.O.) boards regulate its production. There are two main paprika making regions in Spain: La Vera in Extremadura and Murcia. Both regions are under D.O. control to ensure the precise following of the centuries-old process of growing, smoking and grinding the peppers.
Pimentón de la Vera: Smoked Spanish Paprika
Arguably the most popular type of Spanish paprika is that from La Vera, a corner of Extremadura less than 100 miles from the Portuguese border. This is where the Jerónimos monks first created the characteristic technique for making Spanish paprika, a technique to this day still produces thousands of tons of paprika each year.
More than 1,000 hectares (nearly 2,500 acres) get planted with peppers for paprika production in La Vera. The region’s unique soil and climate makes the peppers high in carotene, which gives them their iconic bold red color. From mid September through late October, scores of harvesters pick the long, thin peppers by hand.
The peppers then slowly smoke in a specially designed wood and brick smokehouse for 10 to 15 days. A small oak wood fire constantly simmers meters below the floorboards, gently drying the peppers and giving them their defining smokey flavor.
Four different classes of pepper are used to produce pimentón de La Vera. Three (Jaranda, Jariza, Jeromín) come from the Ocales variety, known for its spectacular deep red color. Bola, the fourth variety, was spicy 500 years ago when Columbus brought it to Spain, but the climate and soil here have made these peppers lose all of their capsaicin, the component which makes peppers hot.
The drying and mixing of these peppers determines the spiciness of the paprika. Pimentón de La Vera comes in three types:
- Picante (spicy), made from the spiciest Jeromín peppers
- Agridulce (bittersweet), made from the mild and beautifully bright red Jaranda and Jariza peppers
- Dulce (sweet), made from brilliantly red Jaranda peppers and sweet Bola peppers (this variety is still smoked and shouldn’t be confused with other sweet Spanish paprikas, such as Murcian)
Pimentón de Murcia: Sweet Spanish Paprikas
At one point, the Jerónimos monks from Extremadura brought their paprika-making secrets across the peninsula to another monastery of the same order in Murcia. Over the centuries, though, both the process and the peppers themselves have changed drastically.
Murcia uses only one type of pepper in its paprika: the sweet Bola variety. The growing conditions in Murcia have drastically changed this pepper from the long, thin, spicy pepper of South America to the sweet, round, bell pepper-like version now used in Murcian pimentón.
The hand-picked peppers dry in the sun or in warm air driers over several days, rather than smoking like in La Vera. Murcia produces about half as much paprika as La Vera. About 1,350 tons of Murcia’s uniquely sweet Spanish paprika went to markets in Spain and abroad in 2014.
Spanish Paprika Uses
Spanish paprika forms the base of many of the country’s stewed, roasted and boiled dishes. One of the most popular ways to add a burst of flavor to nearly any Spanish dish is with a sofrito, a slow-simmered sauce of olive oil, veggies, and pimentón. Sofritos are a common base for stews, beans, and even many paellas.
A decent amount of Spain’s paprika also goes to making some seriously incredible cured meats, namely chorizo and sobrassada.
Depending on the region, chorizo can use either sweet or spicy paprika. The ground pork gets heavily doused with pimentón, garlic and salt, then stuffed into casings and lightly smoked for about two weeks.
Sobrassada is very similar to chorizo in flavor, but a beast all its own in texture. Unlike its better-known cousin, sobrassada is spreadable!
The punchy smokiness of the paprika-heavy sobrassada often comes with a sweet drizzle of local honey atop toasted bread. Sobrassada, which is from the Balearic Island of Mallorca, is typically made with a paprika produced on the island called pimentón tap de cortí.
Spanish paprika is also a common addition to many of Spain’s classic dishes like Galician-style octopus and lacón (thin-shaved roasted ham).
Spanish Paprika Recipes
Ready to give Spain’s favorite spice a try for yourself? Here are some excellent recipes using Spanish paprika that will help get you started!
- Traditional Spanish Sofrito
- Pork & Chorizo Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
- Marmitako (Basque Tuna Stew)
- Pollo al Chilindrón (Chicken & Pepper Stew)
- Migas (Fried Breadcrumbs with Garlic & Chorizo)
- Spinach & Chickpea Stew
- Spanish Hummus
- Spanish Pork Skewers
- Zanahorias Aliñadas (Marinated Carrot Salad)
Where to Buy Spanish Paprika
Thanks to pimentón‘s growing popularity even in non-Spanish cuisines, more and more grocery stores around the globe are stocking Spanish paprika. You’ll also likely find it at many specialty spice shops.
Many online retailers specializing in Spanish products are also great options for buying pimentón. If you’re in the US, La Tienda has a good selection of sweet, bittersweet, and spicy Spanish paprikas from La Vera.
Spanish Paprika FAQs
While these paprikas can technically be swapped out for one another at a 1:1 ratio, doing so isn’t recommended. The drastically different tastes will alter the flavor profile of your dish quite a bit. If a recipe recommends using one or the other, it’s likely for good reason.
Pimentón is simply the Spanish word for paprika. You may additionally see it described as pimentón dulce (sweet paprika), pimentón picante (spicy paprika), and so on.
If you just see “paprika” in a recipe written in English, it most likely refers to sweet Hungarian paprika—the standard in countries such as the US. Spanish paprika is smokier in flavor—so the uses for each one can vary quite a bit!
Most Spanish paprikas have a notably smoky flavor. The level of sweetness or spiciness depends on the exact variety used.
Only paprikas specifically labeled as such (pimentón picante) will be spicy. Other common varieties of Spanish paprika are sweet (dulce) and bittersweet (agridulce).
These two terms can often be used interchangeably. Most Spanish paprikas are smoked, and the technique of smoking peppers for paprika does come from Spain. For the best quality, look for a smoked paprika produced in the protected Denomination of Origin (D.O.) region of La Vera.
However, not all Spanish paprikas are made with smoked peppers, so be careful! Some recipes, such as paella valenciana, work better with sweet (unsmoked) Spanish paprika. In this case, look for paprikas from D.O. Murcia.
Update Notice: This post was originally published on July 23, 2015 and was republished with new text and photos on May 12, 2021.
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