Absolutely no one is a fan of dull, lifeless food, now are they? That’s why many of us reach for the paprika to breathe a bit of life into our casseroles and stews. The well-rounded warmth of the flavor just seems to tie nearly every dish together. And better yet, pretty much everyone seems to like the flavor. It is not a divisive ingredient by any stretch of the imagination.
But what happens when you’re cooking one of the family favorite dishes and you reach for the paprika to find that there’s nothing there? It does happen from time to time. We often forget which spices to stock up on when it comes time to go get the shopping.
Though nothing will taste exactly the same as paprika, there are a few substitutes that can hold their own and even bring something new to the dish. But, there are also some pitfalls that are best avoided. One that caught me out in the past was my assumption that Hungarian paprika and paprika as we know it are one and the same.
Hungarian paprika comes in a few different strengths that range from sweet and mild, right up to blow your face off hot! If you know your way around this spice, it can make an excellent substitute for paprika. But, if you don’t, you run the risk of potentially ruining your recipe irreparably.
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While it is definitely true to say that the humble paprika powder offers several unique flavor qualities that are hard to find elsewhere, there may well be some reasonable substitutes in your spice rack as you read this.
As we mentioned above, Hungarian paprika is a viable option if you choose the right one. But generally, across the board, all of the best substitutes for paprika come in the form of mild chili powders. We have mentioned only four below – the most commonly found ones. But just because it might not be found on this list, don’t rule out a mild and sweet chili powder that might be specific to your region.
Bear in mind that some of these substitutes may bring a bit more heat to the dish than paprika would. As such, it is generally a good idea to add a small bit of the substitute at a time and taste the results as you go along.
1. Chili Powder
Sometimes it is the simplest solutions that seem to work the best. But, there’s more to chili powder than meets the eye. Contrary to popular belief, chili powder isn’t just made from dried and ground up chilies. It has a complexity to it. Though chili is the main ingredient of the powder, it is pretty much always mixed up with some earthier flavors such as garlic and cumin.
It goes without saying that this spice mix will bring a bit more kick to the dish you are cooking, but it won’t just be spice for the sake of spiciness. In fact, the earthy tones of the chili powder can really fill out the overall flavor of the dish. Another benefit of this option is that it is by far the easiest to source. I’m willing to wager that most of you will already have a jar of this nestled into the spice rack.
There is one downside to using chili powder as a replacement for paprika, however. When we use paprika, the dish that we are cooking generally takes on this wonderful color which is quite aesthetically pleasing. To achieve this same effect with chili powder, one would have to use so much that it would add quite a bit of spice to your recipe. So, if aesthetics and presentation are part and parcel of your cooking flair, it is best to add something else to fill in for the color. A small bit of tomato puree should add that extra bit of color that you are looking for.
2. Ancho Powder
This is probably the closest you can get to substituting for paprika without anybody noticing the difference. Ancho chilies are wonderfully mild and have beautiful earthy tones that just aren’t really found that easily. But, therein lies the trouble. In some parts of the world, it is simply impossible to source a good ancho powder, or indeed any ancho at all!
All that being said, there are other chili powders out there that are mild and earthy and are 100% derived from just the chili itself. Ancho, which is made from the poblano peppers, carries only mild heat. This makes it an almost ideal substitute for paprika itself. In fact, the poblano is only the slightest bit higher than the pimento (from which we get paprika) on the Scoville scale.
By this logic, the chances are excellent that you and your guests may notice no changes at all to the flavor of the dish. Perhaps the only perceivable difference will be the slight smokiness of the ancho powder compared to paprika.
So, overall this is definitely the best substitute out there. The only thing that brings it down is that most of us won’t have much access to it. We are unlikely to have a jar of it sitting in the spice rack, and we probably won’t see it on the shelves at the store either. However, if you are one of the lucky ones that have it at your disposal, fire away!
3. Chili Flakes
Chili flakes can make for a reasonable substitute for paprika. They add the little touch of heat, color, and flavor that would otherwise be notably absent from the dish. However, because they are not in powder form, the texture of the overall dish that you are cooking can be altered a small bit. Really, the best thing about chili flakes as a substitute is that they are not really that spicy.
Your average jar of chili flakes, the kind that you would find in your local pizzeria, only pack a small amount of punch. In this case, this is a good thing. The last thing you want from a replacement for paprika is that it would overpower the other flavors in the dish. But thankfully, the heat here is more of a subtle one.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of using chili flakes is that they can be found pretty much anywhere. If there isn’t a jar of them currently residing in your spice rack, you can rest assured that you will be able to source them at the local store. So, though there are some notable differences in flavor between chili flakes and paprika, this substitute is still a worthy mention.
4. Cayenne Pepper
This may sound like a bit of an odd suggestion to some of you, but there is some logic to it – I promise! Sure, cayenne pepper packs a reasonable amount of kick, coming in at around 40,000 on the Scoville scale, but if it is used in the right quantities, it does have the potential to be a subtle flavor.
That being said, where cayenne will really come into its own as a substitute is in hotter dishes that call for paprika. It will add quite a bit of the flavor and the color of paprika, whilst also generating a bit of heat. Basically, it is one for those who like their food hot!
The jump in hotness from paprika to cayenne is considerable, and the heat might not be for everyone. If this is the situation you have found yourself in, you can always cut it with a bit of chili powder, or better yet, some ancho powder. Whatever you do, don’t substitute for paprika at a 1:1 ratio. You will most likely regret it!
How you substitute for paprika really depends on your personal preferences. Some of us like to add an extra bit of oomph to a dish, but in a mellow dish like a goulash, this will be unwelcome. Really, the only replacement on this list that we would recommend trying at a 1:1 ratio is the ancho powder. For the rest, we would suggest adding a small bit at a time until you have achieved the desired effect. Remember to have a taste of the dish frequently so as to avoid overpowering the more subtle elements of the dish with spice.