On Making Smoked Paprika
Smoked Paprika is a rich, red spice made from Pimenton or Paprikash peppers and smoked over oak to give it that wonderous flavor. My favorite pepper to grow for this is the Hungarian Paprikash as it is a mild, sweet pepper that is not overly hot but still lends the right amount of heat and spice to a dish. This spice typically comes as either Sweet Hungarian Paprika or Spanish Smoked Paprika. While the sweet version is made out with the traditional Hungarian Paprikash variety, the smoked Spanish version typically uses out of a variety of peppers, such as Pimenton and Picante Pimenton before smoking over oak chunks and then being put out to dry in the hot sun.
Growing Your Own Peppers
While Paprikash peppers are typically grown in warmer climates as a perennial, they do amazingly well here in Pennsylvania as an annual. They take a while to germinate from seed, so be sure to start them early indoors if you plan on transplanting them. Paprikash peppers are cold-sensitive so you might want to wait a bit longer (up to two weeks after the last frost) to put them in the ground. Be sure to “harden them off” by watering less and leaving them in their pots outside for a day or two before you begin transplanting.
If your plants develop small flowers or buds early before you are ready to put them in the ground, simply pinch them off so it sends a message to the plant that it is not ready to begin fruiting and this will produce a much hardier plant as it will put more energy into growing thicker stems and produce more leaves. Be ready to stake them as they start producing lots of peppers and the weight of the fruit can break the plant. Overall, these peppers are very easy to grow and since they are grown as an annual here in Pennsylvania, they are not as prone to disease and pest problems as other plants.
When planting Paprika make sure you select a sunny spot with well-drained soil. If you are growing these to smoke and make the spice, but would also like to use them chopped up in salads or in your beef chili, I would recommend a more traditional variety, such as the Hungarian Red Round, as it tastes great fresh and has just a hint of heat. If you are looking for a hotter variety that lends itself well to this method, the Hot Anaheimis a great variety to use as soon as the peppers have ripened to a rich, deep red color which is when they will pack the most heat and make an incredible spice once finished. By the way, those links to the seeds are to a family-run business called Seeds for Generations and they are some of the highest quality, non-G.M.O. seeds you can purchase. I highly recommend them!
Preparing the Peppers for Smoking
Pictured above is the mix of peppers I used this time around to make this batch. I recommend using only one kind of pepper and sticking to one of the more traditional varieties if this is your first time making smoked paprika, but as you can see I like to experiment with adding different kinds to see what kind of interesting flavor profiles I can come up with. For this particular batch I used a mix of Hungarian Paprikash, Anaheim, and threw in some ripe Jalapeño for some added kick (seeds and membrane removed.)
Preparation of the peppers is really quite simple. Just pick, wash, and if you are going to use a charcoal smoker like I do, use a knife to slit the peppers open. Do not bother removing the seeds or membrane at this time — that can be done later. The slicing of the peppers will allow the smoke to better penetrate the fleshy walls and since we are using a small charcoal smoker instead of a traditional smokehouse we need all the help we can get.
Smoking the Peppers
As you can see from the picture above, I do not have a fancy, high-priced smoker and I have to make do with this inexpensive one but I am not one to complain and it certainly gets the job done. While you can see some wood chips in the foil-lined water bowl that acts as a “heat sink,” the primary smoke comes from a lump of hardwood Oak that I bury in the hot coals. I do not recommend using charcoal briquettes for this application, try to source traditional hardwood as most briquettes contain lots of filler (such as sawdust) as well as harmful chemicals.
Do not use too much charcoal as we do not want high heat to cook or sear the peppers, we just want to impart a nice, smoky flavor while starting the drying process. I tend to fill up my chimney starter about halfway or less so I have just enough coals to cover the chunk of Oak. Be sure to wait until the charcoal has ashed over and stopped billowing smoke before it adding it to your smoker. You want a thin wisp of light grey smoke coming out of the smoker and not a giant, billowing black cloud as that would be overkill. I usually aim for around 3–4 hours of smoking and by that time the lump fuel is spent.
Grinding and Storing Your Smoked Paprika
Once you have smoked your peppers it’s time to finish fully drying them so you can finish the product. I use my oven at the lowest temperature setting possible and if I feel it is getting too hot I simply leave the stove door open about an inch. This process will take hours but you must make sure the peppers are fully desiccated before you grind them as any moisture that remains is a threat that can cause spoilage. You can also use a food dehydrator to finish as long as you keep the setting to around 125 degrees Fahrenheit. A neat trick I’ve seen Alton Brown use is to make your own “food dehydrator” by using a box fan, some paper air-conditioning filters, and bungee cords!
Regardless of the method used to dry them as long as they fully dried you can move to the next step — which is to grind them and store the powdered spice. I like the traditional mortar and pestle for this job as I can control how fine I want the finished powder to be but you can also use a food processor to speed things up.
Once you have pulverized all your pepper parts evenly you can then store them in glass jars. I do not recommend using plastic containers. Some prefer not to grind the peppers until they are ready to use in a recipe as this will preserve more of the intense smoke flavor but I do not have that kind of time so as soon as I have finished grinding I immediately transfer the powder to an spice jar.
Do keep in mind the level of heat in the finished product is determined by the amount of seeds you used so if you want a milder product then be sure to remove all the seeds before proceeding to the grinding step. I like to keep some seeds in there as I like things spicy but it is entirely up to you.
Don’t feel like doing all that work but would like to have the best paprika on hand? I recommend Pride of Szeged if you are looking for a sweet Hungarian Paprika. If you are looking for a very smoky amazing Spanish paprika, then I recommend Chiquilin Pimenton Ahumado which is made in the traditional way by smoking over oak logs for several weeks!