Paprika is made from dried chile peppers (Capsicum annuum). Although we most commonly associate paprika with Hungarian or Spanish cuisine, chile peppers weren’t introduced to Europe until the 15th century. They are native to Central America.
Paprika ranges in heat from sweet to very hot depending on how much seed was included when the peppers were processed. Paprika peppers themselves are not hot. Paprika is used to add color to foods like devilled eggs because when it is used raw, it has no flavor. Heating it brings out the flavor and heat of paprika.
Chile peppers are grown as annuals. The plants need full sun and rich, well-drained soil. Plan on planting 10 to 15 plants to yield a year’s supply of paprika.
Peppers are commonly grown from seed. In zones 6 and higher, you can direct sow your seeds after all danger of frost has passed. Most gardeners, no matter their growing zone, buy plants or start their seeds indoors. Start your seeds indoors 8 to 10 weeks before your last frost. Cover them with ¼” of soil and keep them evenly moist. Germination will be erratic if your seeds dry out. Keep your seeds in a warm environment, 65⁰F to 80⁰F. You can expect your seeds to germinate in 7 to 15 days.
Transplant your seedlings into your garden when the nights are consistently above 55⁰F and the soil has warmed to at least 65⁰F. Pepper plants grow slowly in cold soil. If you wish to fertilize, use a liquid fertilizer such as 20-30-20 every 10 days. You can also use blood meal, fish bone meal or composted chicken manure for 6 weeks after planting. Most peppers require that you keep them evenly moist throughout the growing season. Hungarian paprika peppers are more drought tolerant and can survive periods of dryness.
The fruit is ripe and ready for harvest when it has turned from green to red, yellow, orange or purple. They can be air dried in a cool, dark, dry, well-ventilated place or in a food hydrator. If you elect to air dry them, use a needle to pierce the tops and pass a string through them to hang. Alternatively, if you want smoked paprika, you can dry your peppers in a smoker using oak wood. The peppers are completely dry when they are shriveled and brittle.
Paprika peppers can be ground in either a spice grinder or a coffee grinder. Add more or less seeds and membranes for your desired degree of heat. Process the fruit, seeds and membranes in small batches and sift each batch to separate out larger pieces and grind them again. Continue grinding until all of your peppers have been reduced to a fine powder. Store your paprika in an air-tight glass jar in a cool, dark place. Exposure to sun or heat will degrade the flavor of your spice.