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Smoked Paprika

By Cook's Illustrated Published May 2016

How we tested

Smoked paprika is a specialty of Spain, where ripe red chile peppers are dried slowly, according to tradition, over smoldering oak fires for upwards of two weeks to give them a smoky taste and aroma before they’re ground into a fine brilliant-red powder. The smoking is what sets this paprika apart; peppers for regular paprika are air-dried in the sun or by machine. We use smoked paprika, called pimentón in Spanish, to lend a deep red color and a sweet, smoky, raisin-like flavor and fragrance to meats, seafood, sauces, dips, and vegetables. In Spanish cuisine, it’s a primary seasoning for chorizo and the spicy, smoky sauce for the bar snack patatas bravas.

Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers brought paprika from the Americas, and both Hungary and Spain eventually adopted it with enthusiasm, each creating several different styles. Today, Spain has two paprika-producing regions, La Vera and Murcia. Both have earned Denominación de Origen Protegida (DOP) status, meaning they adhere to processing standards distinctive to the region. Smoked paprika, which is available in three styles—sweet, bittersweet, and hot—is a specialty of La Vera. We focused on the sweet style, which is most commonly called for in recipes and is the most common in American markets.

We tasted seven products, priced from $2.20 to $3.31 per ounce, including a DOP-certified Pimentón de La Vera from Spanish manufacturer La Dalia. We sampled them in Smoky Pork and White Bean Stew and then in our sauce for Patatas Bravas, rating them on their flavor, level of smokiness, and overall appeal.

Our tasters strongly preferred smokier paprikas; they gave the lowest score to an American-made brand with “almost no perceptible smoke.” By contrast, our top two paprikas, both made in Spain and dried over oak fires in the traditional way, had an abundance of sweet, intense, woodsy smoke flavor. One, made under the auspices of the DOP council that holds producers to traditional methods, is made from peppers smoked for 15 days; the other uses peppers smoked for two to three days. According to DOP guidelines, it is this slow, careful smoking and dehydrating—without stewing the peppers in their own juices—that is the biggest factor in giving paprika better aroma, flavor, and color stability. We’ll happily buy either of our top two choices, which virtually tied in our rankings: Simply Organic Smoked Paprika ($2.83 per ounce) can be found at most supermarkets, while La Dalia Pimentón de la Vera Sweet Smoked Paprika ($2.39 per ounce, plus shipping) is easy to find online. Both offered intense, smoky flavor; fruity sweetness; and a brilliant color to enhance our recipes.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*