Paella is a traditional rice dish of Valencia. Paella was originally made by field workers who cooked their lunch over fires in shallow pans. They used whatever ingredients they could find, including vegetables and snails. If they were lucky they would add a bit of rabbit.
It's all about the rice
Like risotto, the best thing about a good paella is the rice. The rice is more important then the toppings. Like risotto, paella is made with short grained rice, either Bomba or Calaspara rice. In a pinch, you can use Italian Arborio rice. These rices are unique in that they are able to absorb huge quantities of liquid. The best paellas are made out of doors on a wooden fire. When properly prepared over a wood fire you will get a crispy layer of rice on the bottom of the pan called socarrat, that is considered the best part of paella. This is very difficult to achieve when using the stove top or oven methods. I confess to never having achieved a good socarrat, but I still think my oven-finished paella is delicious.
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Use a good olive oil for cooking your rice and browning your protein.
Sofrito is mixture of onions, garlic, red peppers and tomatoes that is cooked in olive oil. It is the base that the paella rice is cooked in. Sometimes aromatics, herbs and Spanish paprika are added. Sofrito is the basis of many Spanish dishes, not just paella.
Traditional paella was made of chicken, rabbit, snails and fresh beans. Today, most people associate paella with Paella de Marisco, a mixed paella which typically includes chicken, sausage, artichoke hearts, shrimp, mussels and peas or green beans. Purists prefer more traditional paellas that highlight only a few ingredients.
Saffron and Spanish paprika are the two quintessential paella spices.
Saffron is wonderful for its fragrance and beautiful color and is usually used in paella. Saffron is also very expensive. In a pinch you can still make a great paella without it, but if you can manage it, don't skip the saffron. Some paellas use turmeric to mimic the color of saffron. This results in a bright orange yellow rice that has nothing to do with the flavor of saffron.
Soak your saffron in a splash of water or wine for 10 minutes or more before adding to the paella to release its flavors.
Spanish smoked paprika (pimentón)
While you can get away with skipping the saffron, don't skip the pimentón. This smokey spice is essential to paella. Don't even think about substituting the tasteless orange powder sold as paprika in the grocery store! You will be sadly disappointed in the result.
Paella is cooked in a paella pan, also called a paellera. Paella pans are wide shallow pans with dimpled bottoms that help the rice to steam. In a pinch you can use a large sauté pan, but you miss out on the great presentation you get from a paella pan and you will never achieve the socarrat on the bottom of the pan.
Types of paella pans
The traditional paella pan is made of carbon steel and needs to be seasoned and rubbed with oil after each use. Enameled steel pans are also available that do not require the maintenance of carbon steel. Carbon steel and enamel paella pans are very reasonably priced at about $30-$40 for a 16-18" pan. Stainless steel paella pans are beautiful and easier to maintain but run about twice the cost of carbon steel. You can also use a large sauté pan or a cazuella. I have made paella in a large sauté pan. It is not as pretty, you won't get the socarrat, but it works in a pinch.
Size of paella pan
Paella pans come in an enormous range of sizes, going all the way up to paella pans that can feed hundreds of people. Two things to consider when you choose a paella pan are: 1) the number you are feeding, and 2) the size of your heat source.
1) How many people do you want to feed?
Bigger pans are better, because you want the layer of rice to be thin, about 1/2" to 3/4" deep. Here are some rough guidelines.
7-8" 1 person
13" 4 people
17-18"" 6 - 8 people
22" 12 people
26" 16 people
36" 40- 50
2) How big is your heat source?
If you are cooking paella on the stove, you need to consider the size of your burner. Most home burners can accomodate up to 15-17" paella pans if you move them around a bit and/or share two burners. If you plan on finishing your paella in the oven, you need to consider the size of your oven. If you plan on cooking your paella on the barbecue, you can usually accomodate a larger pan than your stove top or oven. When in doubt measure your heat source before you buy your paella pan.
If you want to occasionally feed a large number of people, say 12, it may be better to purchase two smaller pans so you can feed either 6 with one pan or 12 with two pans.
The basic ratios per person
Below are the ratios of the basic ingredients for making paella. Multiply these by the number of people you are serving. Add whatever toppings you prefer.
- 1/3 cup rice
- 2/3-1 cup stock
- 1/4 onion
- 1 garlic clove
- 1/4 red bell pepper
- 1 tomato
- 4-5 strands saffron
- 1/4 t Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton)
The basic recipe
There are three basic steps in making a paella:
1. Preparing the protein
Whatever protein you chose, prepare it in advance. Brown your chicken, pork, rabbit or sausage. Clean your seafood.
2. Make the sofrito
Cut tomatoes in half and scoop out the seeds with your fingers. Grate them on a box grater with skin sides down until all the meat is removed. Discard the skins and set the tomato meat aside.
Sauté onions and garlic together until soft. Add bell peppers and sauté a couple more minutes. Add your tomatoes a pinch of salt and some pimentón and cook until moisture has evaporated and the mixture is squishy.
3. Adding the rice
When you are ready to add the rice, heat your oven to 400 degrees and bring the stock to a boil in a separate pot, and reduce heat to simmer. Add a splash of olive oil to the sofrito and saffron and more pimentón. Add the rice and cook a couple minutes while stirring to coat each kernel of rice with the sofrito.
4. Add the stock and finish
Once all the rice is coated spread the rice into a thin layer on the bottom of the pan. Add the stock to the rice. Place the toppings on top of the rice and water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook for 10 minutes. Put paella in oven for 10 minutes to finish. Remove from oven and let sit for 10 minutes before serving.
Make paella in advance
Your meats can be browned and your sofrito can be made a day in advance. Then all you do is add your rice, stock and toppings when your guests arrive. Do not add rice until all your guests have arrived and are ready to eat.
- Prep all of your ingredients before you begin assembling your paella.
- Use olive oil liberally.
- Brown your chicken, pork or sausage in advance.
- Rinse seafood and scrub mussels and clams in advance (See How to Store Live Clams, Oysters and Mussels)
- Make your sofrito in advance.
- Never wash rice.
- Calculate one serving per person plus a serving or two for the pan.
- When everything is in the paella pan, the liquid should reach the handles.
- Paella is typically garnished with strips of piquillo peppers.
- José Andrés says never stir your paella rice or even dip a finger or spoon into the rice once it is cooking. By doing so you break a film in the rice and heat escapes resulting in uneven cooking.
- If paella becomes too dry, add a bit more broth and return to the oven.
- If paella is a bit too wet, let it cook a couple more minutes.
- The rice will continue to cook after you remove it from the oven. Let your paella sit for 10 minutes before serving to finish the cooking process.
- You can keep your paella hot for up to an hour by covering it with foil.
Online sources for paella ingredients and equipment
- Bomba rice
- Spanish smoked paprika
- Piquillo peppers
- Carbon steel paella pans
- Stainless steel paella pans