Paprika is used as much for its color as its flavor, lending an appetizing-looking dusting to potato salad and deviled eggs, among others. Perhaps surprisingly, it is the fourth most consumed spice in the world and a signature ingredient of Hungarian goulash. Where no paprika is available, other closely related spices such as pimento, cayenne and chipotle will step in.
Paprika is made from sweet red peppers, also known as capsicums, that are dried then ground. The spice is sold as a powder ranging in color from bright red to light brown. However potent the spice when fresh, it can lose its aroma during storage. Hungary dominates paprika production, but the spice is also produced in Spain and in California. In all, there are eight grades of Hungarian paprika. Varieties range from sweet to spicy, smoky to bitter, depending on how many seeds are left in and the region the pepper is grown in. Not all peppers from within the capsicum family are appropriate substitutes, since the family includes sweet, slightly bland bell and Cuban peppers as well as tangy Jalapeno and pepperoncini, which don't lend themselves to a spice powder.
Unlike the Hungarian pepper, which is sun-dried, Spanish paprika, also called pimenton, is smoked dry. Pimenton adds depth of flavor and spiciness to numerous Spanish dishes including paella and papas bravas spicy potatoes, and contributes the distinctive coloring and heat in chorizo sausage. Like Hungarian paprika, pimenton doesn’t really release its flavor until it is heated in oil, but it is also quite sugary so it has a tendency to burn easily. Pimenton comes in different versions, ranging from sweet, or dulce, to spicy, or picante. Purists might argue that pimenton is the same as, rather than a substitute for, paprika, but in terms of taste the two are sufficiently different.
Like paprika, chipotle pepper has the requisite smokiness to recommend it as a dry rub for barbecue, worked into a rack of ribs or pork shoulder for pulled pork. Made from ground chile peppers, chipotle lends fruity notes and moderate heat to a spice rub, more in common with Spanish pimenton than Hungarian paprika. Chili powder is also an effective substitute, but the powder is usually a mix of spices, including ground chili peppers, cumin, oregano and others, so substituting it for paprika takes the dish in a new direction.
Vibrant red cayenne pepper is much spicier than paprika, so doesn’t work as a like-for-like replacement in stroganoff or goulash, for example, in which the smokiness is as important as the spice. However, cayenne is suitable as a rub for ribs or strong-flavored lamb if paprika is not available. Cayenne is made from dried, ground red and green chili peppers in the same capsicum family as paprika. As one of the key ingredients in Cajun seasoning, along with paprika, it makes a great rub for blackened fish or chicken, or the base of a spicy gumbo.