Most people know paprika as the dull, brick-colored stuff that gets sprinkled over potato salad or deviled eggs, but it's actually an interesting and underappreciated spice. When it's fresh and used boldly as the Hungarians and Spanish do, it can add a lot of bright, fruitlike pepper flavor to a dish. Unfortunately there's also a hot style of paprika, and if you mistakenly use that instead of the regular or "sweet" paprika, you're going to wind up with a dish that really bites back. That doesn't mean you have to discard it and start over, just that you have to be a bit creative in tweaking it.
Understand the Differences Between Paprikas
Paprika isn't one of those exotic spices that require tropical conditions. It's made by drying a few specific kinds of thin-walled red peppers and then grinding the peppers into powder. Most of those peppers have a mild, sweet flavor, so when you dry them, you're getting a concentrated version of that sweet pepper flavor. Some of those peppers have a lot more chile heat to them, though, and the soil and weather conditions where they're grown make a difference as well. That means some kinds of paprika are pretty hot, and you should treat them more like cayenne than sweet paprika. If you dump a handful of the hot kind into your meal, thinking it's sweet, your taste buds will be in for a rough ride.
Spread the Heat
The best way to cut back on the heat of hot paprika is to increase the amount of food it's seasoning. That's only logical: If you've got the same amount of paprika, but twice as much food, it's only going to be half as strong. You don't necessarily have to double the recipe, but stretch it as much as you think you reasonably can. In a soup or stew, that might mean adding more broth. Then you can either add more of the vegetables and other ingredients so it's not too watery or ladle out some of the diluted broth and freeze it for another meal. If the paprika went into a sauce, make up another batch of the sauce without paprika and then add in enough of your overseasoned batch to make it taste good.
Fool Your Taste Buds
If physically diluting the paprika isn't an option, there are other ways to fool your taste buds. One is to serve your dish over a neutral, flavor-absorbing food like potatoes, polenta or plain rice. The heat will still be there, but balancing it out with a starchy staple makes it easier to cope with. Other bold flavors can also help mask the heat. Lemon juice and other tart ingredients are good for that, which is why Asian cultures have so many variations on hot and sour soup. Sweet flavors will do it too, but they're harder to incorporate into a savory dish.
Get Outside Help
One other alternative is to leave your meal just as it is and rely on garnishes or accompaniments to douse the heat in your mouth. Bread or crackers can dull the fire just as well as rice or potatoes, and you won't need to change the actual dish itself to have the same effect. You can also offer a spoonful of yogurt or sour cream at the side of the plate or serve a yogurt-based drink along with the meal. Dairy products are really good at toning down the heat, which is why they're so widely used in Mexican, Indian and other high-spice cuisines. If you don't eat dairy, you can get the same effect with your favorite nondairy yogurt or sour cream substitute.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.