Smoky-savory chicken paprikash gets tweaked through the years
Chicken Paprikash sounds exotic, and while it is a dish with European roots, it is actually a chicken stew full of flavor, without spicy heat.
If you ask me, it is also the perfect comfort food for a cold winter evening, and for those of us who prefer to get a head start on our weekday meals over the weekend, it tastes better if made ahead a couple of days.
According to my handy Food Lover's Companion, Chicken Paprikash, or Paprikás Csirke, is a Hungarian dish consisting of chicken and onions browned in bacon drippings, then braised with chicken stock, paprika and other seasonings. A sauce is made from the braising liquid mixed with sour cream.
I have eaten many different versions of this recipe. While they all had the main ingredients, chicken, onions, chicken stock, paprika and sour cream in common, and ironically no bacon, that is where the similarities end. Over time, it seems people have added other favorite ingredients like mushrooms, bell pepper, wine and even garlic to this chicken stew.
The one ingredient that can make all the difference in whatever Chicken Paprikash version you make is paprika.
Paprika is sold under many different labels, strengths and varieties. I like to buy mine at a favorite spice store if possible to ensure freshness, as the strength of spices can fade over time.
Basic paprika is sold in most grocery stores and typically says "paprika" on the label. This variety is mild with a low-intensity flavor, some sweetness and no heat, and it's frequently sprinkled on deviled eggs and potato salad.
Hungarian paprika is more complex and comes in a range of flavors, from sweet to spicy. The most common version of this will say "Hungarian Sweet Paprika" on the label and is typically sold in a "tin" and is readily available in most grocery stores.
Smoked paprika is key to this recipe and can be found labeled as such, or sometimes called Spanish paprika, but be careful as the Spanish version is sold in mild and hot. The smoked variety adds a smokey flavor that is so good in this recipe and should not be omitted.
I began making my friend Nancy's version of Chicken Paprikash more than 20 years ago. It was tasty and simple, perfect for a quick weeknight dinner. It consisted of chicken, onions, chicken stock, paprika and sour cream, all thickened with a little flour. She suggested serving the savory mixture over rice or noodles. My family loves it.
Fast forward to a few years ago when I had the honor of preparing the wedding dinner for my friend's son, Tom, and his new wife, Caroline. Caroline had memories of a version of the dish her father had made when she was younger and had hoped to incorporate it into their wedding meal. Unfortunately, she didn't have his recipe, so she asked her extended family, who shared a recipe they believed to be a close match.
In the end, we combined that recipe with one from America's Test Kitchen that added bell peppers and a can of diced tomatoes to achieve a finished dish that tasted like her beloved dad's. Caroline remembered him serving it with spaetzle, little squiggly noodle-like dumplings, which was the perfect vehicle to soak up the delicious sauce.
My husband and I were recently invited to the home of friends Tom and Caryn, where they made yet another delicious version of Chicken Paprikash. Tom cooks his seasoned chicken in an Instant Pot, which speeds up the cooking time and then adds sweet onion and mushrooms, but no bell peppers.
He also includes Marsala wine, heavy cream and a bay leaf, ingredients I hadn't seen in my previous recipes. It was so good; hoping no one would notice, I even had seconds!
Tom and Caryn serve Caryn's family recipe for spaetzle alongside. But this was different, too. Instead of the tiny variety I mentioned earlier, these were slightly larger and smooth, but like the other version, perfect for soaking up the sauce.
The Chicken Paprikash I am sharing today is a blend of all of the recipes I have made over time. This is a forgiving recipe that some in my family believe tastes better if made a few days ahead and served later, perfect for a busy week.
I don't always have time to make homemade spaetzle and often use store-bought noodles, but make sure you use a style that will carry the delicious sauce. I personally think it would also be great with mashed potatoes. You can't miss with this recipe. I will share that I have tried this recipe using chicken breasts, and the flavor isn't the same, so use the bone-in chicken thighs for the most flavor. Enjoy!