This is the second Tip in this series on Spanish cooking and is about Paella, one of the national dishes of Spain. It is a very popular dish and I just became aware that it even has its own emoji. 🥘 It would be good to review my prior Tip on Spanish ingredients before diving into how to make Paella.
Paella was originally called arroz a la valenciana, roughly translated “Valencian rice”. The name of paella was given to this dish towards the end of the 19th century, being named after the distinctive pan in which it is cooked. As the original name implies, the dish originated in Valencia, Spain and paella cooks from that area have had their own version since the 1800s, paella valenciana. It originally contained rice, beans and spices along with chicken and snails. Later people began to use rabbit, pork and duck. Some will say that anything other than paella valenciana is simply un arroz en una paella – a rice in a paella pan.
As with so many dishes, there is not just one recipe for paella but there are some common threads. First and foremost, paella is a rice dish. It does usually contain meat and/or seafood although there are also vegetarian versions. However, it is really all about the rice.
If you read much about paella from experts, they will mention certain “rules” for making this dish. However, if you look at recipes or watch videos, you will see there are just as many versions that break all or most of those rules. If you choose to try paella, I want you to have as much success as possible. We will, therefore, start with some of the traditional recommended elements.
As I mentioned before, the name paella refers not only to the dish but to the pan in which it is made. It is a wide, shallow pan with sloping sides and two handles. It is typically made of thin, conductive metal. There are different sizes depending on how many servings there will be. The rice should be in a thin, even layer of about ½ to ¾ inch thick. Advantages of a paella pan are that the rice is in contact with all the wonderful flavors at the bottom of the pan, the rice is able to cook evenly and have quick evaporation resulting in a dry texture with separate grains of rice. Finally, the pan heats and cools quickly so that when the pan is removed from the heat, the rice in the bottom stops cooking immediately.
Most of us home cooks will probably not have a paella pan and will use another pan we already have. However, purists will say that a dish made of similar ingredients but cooked in a different pan is un arroz (a rice) and not a paella.
You may use one or two large skillets, preferably made of stainless steel or aluminum. Avoid cast iron or other heavy skillets that retain heat too much. Because of the limitations of the size of our cooktop burners, don’t use a pan larger than about 12 inches. You can, though, use two skillets. The method of cooking is described below but, if using two skillets, cook the meats and sofrito in one and then divide this between the two skillets, add half the liquid and carry on with the recipe.
A paella pan does need a wide, powerful and uniformly distributed heat source. Traditionally, it is cooked over a wood fire, often with a special frame to hold the pan. Just as most of us will not have a paella pan, we will want to use our cooktops rather than a wood fire. Just realize that the burners will not be an exact fit and you may need to move and rotate the pan to get even cooking.
You do not want to use just any rice. Rather, you want a short- or medium-grained rice. This type of rice is able to absorb abundant liquid, up to three times its weight, which is more than your typical long grain rice.
Spanish 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. It is said to be a little more forgiving in the cooking process and therefore, especially recommended for beginners.
None of these rices will most likely be present in your average supermarket. You will have to look for them in international markets or online. Some non-Spanish options that produce decent results are CalRiso, Calrose, California Blue Rose, Japanese short-grain rice and Italian short-grain rices such as Carnaroli and Arborio.
A standard serving of rice is ½ cup (100 gms) of uncooked rice per person. The amount of rice you use will determine the size of the pan that is needed. When everything is in the pan and the rice is in a thin layer, the liquid should ideally reach the pan’s handles. Here are recommended pan sizes for varying serving amounts.
- 2-3 people – 12 inches
- 2-4 people – 14 inches
- 4-5 people – 16 inches
- 4-6 people – 18 inches
- 6-8 people – 20 inches
- 10 people – 22 inches
- 12 people – 24 inches
- 15 people – 26 inches
Do not stretch the pan more than a serving or two beyond the recommended number or the purpose of the pan is defeated. But if you have a large group and only a moderate-sized pan, reduce the amount of rice per person from ½ to ⅓ cup and serve other appetizers and salads.
In your everyday cooking, you may use a 2:1 liquid to rice ratio but with this Spanish short-grain rice, it will be different. The exact rice-to-liquid ratio will vary depending on the size of the pan, the heat source and how dry you want the rice to be. For a dry paella, use 1 cup rice to 2 to 2½ cups liquid. Recall that the Bomba rice can absorb up to three times its weight in liquid.
If you wish to scale the recipe up or down, be sure to keep the rice-to-liquid ratio constant while the size of the pan changes for the number of servings you are cooking.
A mild Extra-Virgin Olive Oil (Spanish, if available) is recommended.
The Sofrito base
El Sofrito is the foundation of nearly every Spanish rice dish (see this Cooking Tip for more info). It is a slow sauté of veggies that includes one or more of onions, green or red bell peppers, garlic and tomatoes. It is gently and slowly cooked into a very soft, almost jam-like base.
Onions are not generally used in paellas as they produce a lot of liquid and can make the rice mushy. That being said, I looked at 15 different paella recipes from different sources and all but two called for onions. If you use onions, be sure to cook them thoroughly until all the moisture is gone.
Tomatoes should be peeled, seeded and finely chopped (known as concassé) before being added to the pan. Alternatively, they can be grated on a box grater. To do this, cut them in half, remove the seeds and grate, discarding the skins. You can also use canned whole tomatoes. (See this Cooking Tip for why you might not want to use canned diced tomatoes.) Strain them, reserving the liquid to add later to the cooking sofrito, and finely chop. The tomatoes must cook until the moisture has evaporated and the texture is very soft.
Saffron is what gives paella its yellow color and should not be skipped or substituted. See this Cooking Tip for a discussion of saffron. Some people will just crumble the saffron and add directly to the pan once the liquid is added. Others will “bloom” it in warm stock or wine before adding it.
Known as pimentón, there are three kinds of Spanish paprika.
- Dulce – sweet. This is the one you want to use for paella.
- Agridulce—bittersweet or semisweet
- Picante – hot
This not an ingredient but a desired outcome from the cooking method. It is a slightly caramelized crust that forms on the bottom of the pan if cooked properly. It is the favorite part of paella for many people.
Meat and/or Seafood
As mentioned above, the original paella was made with chicken and snails and later with rabbit, pork and duck. In the northwest of Spain and in Portugal, chorizo sausage is added. It adds a depth of flavor and will take on whatever spiciness level is in the sausage you buy.
Outside of Valencia, the most common is what is called “mixed” or “mixta” paella and is normally made with chicken and various types of seafood. As you travel away for the coast of Spain, the paella will contain more meat, especially rabbit, and less fish.
In Murcia, Spain, they make a paella hortelana”, meaning paella of the vegetable garden. It is a vegetarian version made with veggies of your choice and often has a pesto-like sauce made with almonds, garlic and parsley added to it.
The stock in which you cook the rice is very important for imparting flavor. Therefore, you want to use a great stock, whether it is homemade or store-bought. If the latter, use one with no or low amounts of sodium. The better the stock, the better the rice will be.
There are certain “rules” for cooking paella if you talk to a paella expert. However, you will see plenty of videos and recipes that break some, if not all, of these rules. I will give you recommendations that are as close to authentic as I can.
Most people begin by browning the meat in olive oil. This not only gives more flavor to the meat but also produces fond on the bottom of the pan, another flavor contributor. Don’t worry about cooking the meat all the way at this point. It will finish cooking later.
Then, as mentioned above, the veggies should be slowly cooked down into a sofrito. Most do this in the same pan, but to speed up the process, you could be doing this in on pan as you are browning the meat in another.
Paprika is then added along with the stock and saffron. (Note above note about blooming the saffron.)
Some recommend bringing the liquid to a boil and adding the rice. Others add the rice to the sofrito, let it fry for a moment and then add the boiling liquid.
Whichever you do, the rice should be cooked, uncovered, at first at a high heat for about 10 minutes and then turned down until the riced is al punto, “at the point”, meaning the rice has just a bit of bite left to it and the bright white nucleus of the kernel has almost disappeared. It will finish cooking during the resting stage.
The liquid needs to be completely evaporated at this point, which is the challenge in cooking a great paella. As the liquid evaporates, there develops the thin, crispy layer of toasted rice on the bottom on the pan, the “socarrat”.
Paella experts will tell you that after the rice is added and you ensure it is totally submerged in the stock, it should not be stirred although you can shake the pan. Stirring interferes with the formation of the socarrat and also releases the starch from the rice kernels. This is what you want with a creamy risotto but not with a paella. You want a dry rice here. Again, I have watched videos where this advice is ignored but I would recommend that you keep your stirring to an absolute minimum.
Finally, it is removed from the heat and covered to rest before being served. It is traditionally eaten right from the pan, not with plates.
If you want to make the paella ahead of time, just make it to the point where you would add the rice. Let it cool, cover and refrigerate if holding it for more than a few hours. Cover with foil to prevent evaporation. When ready to finish, remove foil, bring liquid to boil and finish.
If you want to read more about making paella by someone who learned from his Spanish mother-in-law, I highly recommend the book La Paella by Jeff Koehler.
I must admit that paella is not one of my favorite dishes. Perhaps that is because I have never eaten a truly great one. Have you?