Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Ingredients for Spanish Cooking

I will be teaching a private cooking class on Paella and Tapas. One thing I will be teaching is the importance of understanding the ingredients that make these dishes authentic. I thought all of my readers might also be interested in this topic. To do this, I will be writing a series of three Cooking Tips on Spanish ingredients, Paella and Tapas. In this one, I want to just concentrate on traditional and typical ingredients that you will find in Spanish kitchens.

Olive oil

Although olive oils are made from olives grown in various countries, Spanish olive oil is what is used in Spanish cuisine, especially extra-virgin. The flavor can vary from mild to robust as there are more than 200 varieties of olives grown in Spain.


Spanish rice is either short- or medium-grain. Short-grain rice is almost round, its length is only slightly longer than its width. Medium-grain will be a bit longer as compared to its width. Both have a high degree of pearling, which is the concentration of starch in the middle of the grain and gives it its very white color. It also allows for the great absorption and ultimate creaminess of the dish.

Spanish rice is sometimes named for the region where it is grown and sometimes for the rice variety. Some of the regions are Calasparra, Valencia and Delta del Ebro. The short-grain Bomba rice is a particular variety that is grown in all three regions and is the one most often recommended for making paella.


  • Spanish Chorizo – this is a dried and cured sausage that is made from pork and seasoned with paprika, giving it a red color. It can be either sweet or spicy and might or might not be smoked. It can be eaten as is or cooked. This is to be distinguished from Mexican chorizo, which is a spicy ground meat sausage, usually sold raw and requires cooking before eating.
  • Jamón Serrano – this ham comes from the hind leg of Spanish white pigs and is dry-cured for an average of 12 months although the highest quality is cured for about 18 months. At least 90% of Spain’s ham production is of this type. It is considered an everyday type of ham.
  • Jamón Ibérico – this is a dry-cured ham from black Iberian pigs. Depending on the grade of jamón, the pigs may feast upon mostly acorns and grasses or the diet may also include herbs, roots and cereals. The meat is cured from 12-36 months. Because of the pig’s diet, the ham has a strong nutty aroma and flavor. It is higher in fat than serrano and is not as chewy as other cured meats. It is considered a delicacy and its price tag reflects that.
  • Because both of these hams are very difficult to find outside of specialty markets or online sources, you may want to seek out a substitute. There really is no substitute for Jamón ibérico. As for serrano, some will recommend substituting prosciutto. The latter is an Italian ham that comes from the same breed of pig and looks similar to serrano. However, its flavor is milder and somewhat sweeter as well as having a softer texture due to a difference in diet and the curing process.


As mentioned above, Spain grows over 200 varieties of olives, including manzanilla (what most people think of as a Spanish olive), gordal, hojiblanca, campo, cacereña, malaguena and aragón. They vary in color, shape, size and flavor.

Marcona almonds

This is a large, wide and flat almond from Catalonia, Spain. They have a higher fat content than California almonds, giving them a creamy taste. In Spain, they are often blanched and then fried in oil and tossed in sea salt.

Sherry vinegar

Made from the best sherry wines and then, depending on the category, it will be aged from 6 months to 10 years. It has a more complex flavor than other vinegars.

Herbs – flat-leaf parsley, rosemary, thyme and oregano

Piquillo Peppers

These red peppers are traditionally grown in Navarre, Spain. They are very mild with a Scoville rating of only 500-100 units. The name is said to derive from a Spanish word meaning “little beak”, which is reflected in their small, narrow and pointed shape.


The garlic you will find in most Spanish kitchens will be locally-grown and will have a purple hue to it.

Other produce – tomatoes (fresh, canned, tomato paste), potatoes, onions, oranges and lemons.


Saffron is a very expensive but very important ingredient in Spanish cooking. See this Cooking Tip for a more thorough discussion of saffron.


Known as pimentón, there are three kinds of Spanish paprika and can be smoked or not.

  • Dulce – sweet.
  • Agrodolce—bittersweet or semisweet
  • Picante – hot


Spain produces many regional cheeses that vary from soft and fresh to hard and aged. Some are produced from cow’s milk but others from goat’s and sheep’s milk. There are too many Spanish cheeses to mention but here are four of the most popular.

  • Manchego – produced in Castilla in the La Mancha region, it is made from sheep’s milk. It can be fresco (aged only 2 weeks), semi-curado (aged up to 3 months), curado (aged up to 6 months) and Viejo (aged up to a year). As the aging continues, the cheese gets drier and spicier.
  • Cabrales – a type of blue cheese from the Asturias region. It is a soft cheese made from a mixture of cow, goat and sheep milk. It has a very strong aroma and flavor.
  • Mahon – from the island of Menorca. It is a dense cheese with a buttery and salty taste that often has paprika and olive oil rubbing into the rind.
  • Tetilla – made from cow’s milk, it has a yellow rind and a conical shape. The flavor is creamy and slightly salty.

Stock your pantry and refrigerator with these Spanish ingredients and stay tuned for how to turn them into a yummy paella and wonderful tapas!