You want to know the truth about what you can substitute for paprika or do you want me to make up some stuff to make you feel like I know what I’m talking about? I’m going to assume you want the truth, and for that, we have to understand a little bit about paprika.
Paprika May the Most Underused Spice in the U.S.
But first, if you’re looking generally for a paprika substitute, you are undervaluing paprika. Paprika is by far my favorite dried spice. I always have two or three varieties on hand. I use smoked paprika, hot Hungarian paprika, and fancy Spanish smoked paprika, a favorite of which is Chiquilin Smoked Paprika (Pimenton Ahumado). I’ve rarely met a paprika I didn’t like.
Many cooks in America have a misconception that it’s nothing more than something to sprinkle on top of deviled eggs or casseroles for color. NO! It’s a flavor bomb and it is probably the most underutilized spice in America. Put it in your potato salad. Put it in your chili. Have it on a plane, on a train, or in Spain. You get the picture. The only other thing I can think of that comes close, is dill, which is an herb and a completely different discussion.
In some places, Paprika is simply a name for chiles, similar to pimento. The name paprika derived from the Latin piper, which developed into the Slavic forms pepperke and piperka. The term paprika only came to be used around 1175.
In regards to the powdered spice, however, you’ll notice I mentioned varieties of paprika. Although you can go to the grocery store and buy “paprika,” such as McCormick’s brand (which is good to keep on hand), paprika is not a single product. It is instead a generic name for any number of cultivars of sweet or spice red chiles. They usually come from Capsicum annuum, var. annuum, and are dried and powdered. For sweet varieties of paprika, the dried flesh is used, and for spicier or “hot” varieties, the seeds and ribs are used, but of course, the level of heat depends on the variety of chile. You can read more about why ribs and seeds of chiles have more heat. Although these chiles originated in the New World, the particular varieties of chile used to make paprika powders were developed in Europe, and especially Hungaria, where paprika is the most oft-used spice, only salt is used more.
It is the particular varieties of chile which are important when assessing what to replace paprika with, and although there are a couple of good contenders, none of these are likely to be a regular part of your pantry.
The very well-known Hot Hungarian Paprika is actually made from a type of cayenne which they call spice paprika, and all Hungarian paprika, even the sweet variety, is a bit more pungent than the typical grocery store brands we find in the spice aisle, or, for example, the Spanish varieties which are made from a milder sweet pepper. But paprikas are produced in so many places, including Morocco, Portugal, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Chile, the U.S., etc. it should be clear that this is not just one single product for which you can find one single substitute! It is simply a name for dried chile peppers.
Are You Misusing Paprika?
The habit of using paprika as a colorful topping rather than a cooking spice may be what has led many Americans to undervalue it. If you take a taste of dry paprika powder, you will find that it has very little flavor on its own, rather than a bitterness. The same is true of most dried chile powders. A taste of cayenne powder will reveal a bitterness and heat, but little more. Since paprika it too often sprinkled on top of something that is fairly dry, such as cheese, or breadcrumbs, the result is simply a red color and a bitter flavor. Sprinkle too much of it on top of a dish and you may get protests of “too much paprika.” For me, there is hardly a such thing as too much paprika but for the flavor of it to come out, it needs to be boiled in a liquid. So, use it in stew or soup-like dishes, or anywhere that there is enough moisture to bring out its true flavor. Then, you’ll be a paprika convert!
There is No GOOD Substitute for Paprika
It is not my purpose to criticize other websites, but here, I feel I owe my dear readers my considered opinion. Sure, we all run out of something now and again but that does not mean we want to be sold a bill of goods on what we can replace it with. Many websites listing ingredient substitutions simply want to tempt you to buy a product or two they’ve linked. I am an affiliate as well, but if you’re going to buy anything special, and you were wondering about paprika, then buy a really nice paprika! Nothing is a direct substitue for paprika, but there are always alternatives. Remember that a stubstitue is someting intended to produce the same, or very close to the same, results. An alternative is simply a choice that will also work well without necessarily producing the same results.
Most purported substitutes for paprika just won’t work. For example, cayenne chile powder is too hot and pungent and the flavor is completely different. One website reports that a combination of cayenne and ground black pepper works as a paprika substitute. The black pepper is probably an attempt to replace a certain depth and pungency found in paprika, but the combination of both will simply result in too much heat and not enough flavor. You can use a LOT of paprika, whereas you can only use a bit of cayenne and black pepper. The Hungarians use tons of it and so do I.
The closest substitute for any paprika you will find is a ground chiles from a milder pepper, such as ancho chile powder. Ancho is the name for dried poblano peppers, which are mild with a nice fruity taste. But using this as a substitute makes absolutely no sense, because paprika of any variety is more readily available than acho chile powder, or pretty much any type of chile powder except cayenne or that confusing variety of product called “chili powder” but which has other ingredients. Read about the difference between chili powder and chile powder, an important one. There are other varieties of chile powder which could be used to replace paprika, but you’ll have to go to more trouble to get them than paprika itself. I
What To Use in a Pinch
If you are out of paprika, I highly doubt you’ll have ancho chile powder on hand, or the other frequently named substitute, alleppo pepper. The idea that fresh bell peppers is a substitute for paprika is just a fantasy, unless you want to roast on off and blend it down just to give some color. But it will not taste like paprika and there are other ways you can get the color that paprika would have given you, depending on the dish. A little tomato paste, for instance, may do the trick.
Use a LITTLE Cayenne
The idea that you would intentionally go shopping for a paprika substitute is ridiculous when you can go to your regular grocery store and buy what you really need. However, if we assume that you do have cayenne pepper on hand, then for recipes which call for paprika in small amounts, use a very small amount of cayenne. However, I have mistakenly used cayenne in dishes when I meant to use paprika, and I will tell you this is NOT a great substitute. It ruined my dish, to be frank. Use only a small amount of cayenne to lend a bit of pungency, but don’t rely on it to replace paprika in large amounts. If you have another variety of chile powder on hand, use a small amount of that. Do not use the aforementioned chili powder, meant to use in chili. In fact, don’t even use that to make chili. And for dishes which absolutely rely on paprika, such as Hungarian Goulash (I make this so often it’s ridiculous), there simply is no substitute.
This article contains one or more Amazon affiliate links. See full disclosure.