You can’t imagine Galician food without pimentón. It’s the colour in pulpo a feira, and the essence of the red chorizos hanging at the butcher’s stall at the market.
Thinking about it, you can’t imagine Spanish food without it. With some differences here and there, it’s featured in many traditional Spanish recipes and it’s probably one of the few ingredients I would really miss if I moved away from Spain.
What is pimentón?
You probably have it in your kitchen cupboard, and you call it paprika. I make it a point to call it pimentón because, well, that’s its name. It’s hard enough to hear orujo called grappa or jamón called prosciutto: Spanish ingredients have an identity of their own and I try to do my best to get people to use their proper names.
Pimentón is, in short, made by grinding dried peppers to a fine powder. Depending on the region the peppers and the process will vary slightly: so whereas in Murcia the traditional peppers are of the bola variety (which, when dried, become ñoras) and they are sun-dried (or hot-air dried) in Cáceres’ La Vera county the peppers (bola and also jaranda, a longer kind of pepper) are smoked dry. Depending on the pepper used the pimentón will be dulce (regular) or picante (hot), with a third kind, agridulce, which although it literally means bittersweet it’s actually a semi-hot variety (and it’s a little less common in shops). Producers will grind the dry pepper and also some of the seeds, since their essential oil is rich in anti-oxidants and it helps keeping the pimentón , and the food it is mixed with, longer.
Where is pimentón produced?
There are two Protected Designation of Origin pimentón: Pimentón de Murcia and Pimentón de la Vera. They both produce regular, hot and semi-hot pimentón, the main difference being that La Vera’s is smoked.
However pimentón is made in many other areas. León and Zamora are known for their pimentón , Candeleda is reintroducing the production of its smoked pimentón (it’s in the Ávila province, very close to La Vera), Alicante is a very large producer of industrial-scale pimentón and in the Balearic islands they are producing their own pimentón , such as the Tap de Cortì from Mallorca, which is then used to make sobrasada.
How is it used?
Most of Spain’s pimentón goes into the meat preserving industry, because of its anti-oxidant effect: think of chorizo, its colour and its flavour are mainly due to pimentón .
In our kitchen we use it to make allada, a traditional Galician warm vinaigrette which goes with vegetables and fish; fish escabeche always carries a little; the basic rustrido (sautéed diced onion, garlic and pepper) often uses it and if it’s a zaragallada (the basic stuffing of an empanada) you should also keep it at hand. The pimentón used in Galician cooking is the plain one, not the smoked one. Pulpo with smoked octopus is an option, but most people would say the smokiness is too strong for the delicate flavour of the octopus.
In Spanish cooking it’s at the base of sopa de ajo or sopa castellana, a simple soup of olive oil, garlic, pimentón and water (with the occasional egg and croutons) which is so tasty that every time I make it it feels like magic. Other recipes which would be unthinkable without pimentón are patatas a la riojana (potato and chorizo stew), patatas bravas (the pimentón goes into the sauce) and most stews and soups.
How do I use it in my kitchen?
To use pimentón in your cooking, try sprinkling a little bit on your finished dish, or add it to a stew or a sauce. Be careful not to burn it, since it would turn bitter. Avoid this mixing it with a little water to make a paste, which you then add to your sautée. It’s also good for marinades, and it can give an extra colour and flavour to a mayonnaise.