Paprika vs. Cayenne: What’s the Difference?

by Charlie

In a quick glance, paprika and cayenne may look identical. They may even smell alike. Well, they are both chili peppers, and they belong to the same nightshade family (genus Capsicum annuum). But these two are not exactly the same.

So what’s the main difference between paprika and cayenne? The main difference between paprika and cayenne is the level of heat or spiciness. The most common type of paprika you get from store shelves is mild. The chili lover won’t probably find it hot or spicy at all. As for cayenne, it is essentially hot and spicy.

Any cayenne product that you get from the shops will have some kick to it. It’s a spice that is one-dimensional in taste. Cayenne is all about spiciness. It’s hot, hot, hot!

Cayenne peppers fall in the medium-hot range. The Scoville scale measures the levels of heat in spicy foods. And it reflects 30,000 to 50,000 heat units for these fiery babies. Paprika does not have a fixed ranking because it goes from mild to hot depending on the type of peppers used.

There are generally 3 types of paprika. Sweet paprika (or plain paprika) has some sweetness. And it infuses that peppery flavor without the heat. Most sweet paprika is made from dried and ground bell peppers.

Smoked paprika infuses that smoky taste and aroma into your dish. It changes the smell and taste of your food in an instant.

Hot Paprika is spicy, fiery paprika. Hungarian paprika and Spanish paprika are also called hot paprika.

Hungarian Paprika is considered premium paprika. It is usually sweet and spicy. Hungarian paprika is not usually smoked, but you may find some smoked varieties.

Spain was the first to develop paprika. Locals call it pimenton. Compared to Hungarian paprika, Spanish pimenton has more flavor, and it can be way spicier than a hot spicy Hungarian paprika.

What are Other Differences Between Paprika and Cayenne?

Besides the difference in heat or spiciness, paprika and cayenne are different in color, texture, and taste.

Their colors differ. Depending on the peppers used, paprika can be bright orange-red, orange-brown, or a deeper red. Cayenne, on the other hand, is mostly orange-red. Although drying or smoking cayenne may slightly change its color.

Their textures differ too. Paprika powder is finely ground, but cayenne powder is grainy or coarser than paprika.

Lastly, their tastes differ. Paprika goes from mild and sweet to hot and bitter. Cayenne pepper is just basically hot. And the longer it’s been in your cooking, the stronger the heat intensifies.

Can You Substitute Cayenne Pepper for Paprika?

Yes, you can substitute cayenne for paprika. But remember that using cayenne instead of paprika will make the dish spicier. Also, using paprika instead of cayenne will make the dish a bit sweet and less hot or spicy.

Now while you can substitute one for the other, your dish can dramatically change. Here are some ways you can make substitutions:

  • If you need paprika but only have cayenne on hand, then reduce the amount of cayenne so that the dish doesn’t get spicier than what you can handle.
  • If you need cayenne but only have hot paprika (or regular paprika) on hand, then slowly season to avoid making the dish sweeter and less hot than desired.
  • Some recipes call for hot paprika, Spanish paprika, or Hungarian paprika. You can substitute by mixing some regular sweet paprika and cayenne pepper (or chili powder) together.

When Should You Use Paprika?

You should use paprika when you want to add color, sweetness, a smoky taste, mild heat, and/or a bit of a garnish to your dish.

A dash of sweet or smoked paprika does wonders for your eggs, soup, and fish. Go for paprika if you want to brighten your stew, salad, beef, and pork. Definitely use paprika if you want to add some sweetness or a smoky, earthy taste to your food. And if you’re in the mood for the taste of chipotle but dislike the heat, then use paprika.

Paprika is great for meat rubs, marinades, and sauces. No barbecue is complete without a generous lather of smoked paprika. It just lifts your meat to a whole new level. You can make your own pork chop or beef steak seasoning using paprika and other spices. Rub your home-made seasoning all over the meat. Pop it in the BBQ grill and you’re in for a great-tasting dinner.

Take it from the Hungarians; paprika is your choice of spice for goulash. And take it from Mexican and Spanish cooks, use paprika for a flavorful taco seasoning, paella, and sausages like chorizo.

What Do You Use Cayenne Pepper for?

Cayenne has one basic purpose, and that is to spice up the heat in any dish. So use cayenne pepper whenever you like it hot and spicy.

Sprinkle some cayenne on your pizza, pasta, or potatoes. Cayenne is also your choice for making chili con carne and hot sauces like Tabasco sauce.

Why not fry some hot, spicy chicken or fish fillet? Give your meat crumb or coating a dash or two of cayenne to give it some kick. Add a whole lot more if you want it fiery hot.

You can cook some cayenne-spiced meatballs to have with rice or over pasta. Or if you’re craving for some hot soup on a cold, winter night, cayenne pepper will add that heat to whatever you’re having. You may also cook yourself some Tom Yum if you fancy having some Thai hot and sour soup to warm you up.

Final Thoughts

  • Ordinary paprika powder is not hot, but all cayenne pepper is hot.
  • Both paprika and cayenne can be smoky and sweet.
  • Paprika is usually sweet and smoky, while cayenne is hot and spicy.
  • Spanish paprika and Hungarian paprika are sometimes called hot paprika.
  • Ground cayenne pepper is coarser than ground paprika.
  • Ground paprika usually has bell pepper.
  • Ground paprika may contain different types of ground pepper, while ground cayenne only contains cayenne pepper.

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