Arguably one of Spain’s most well-known dishes, paella is also one of its most controversial. Too often a tourist trap of a meal – frozen, swapping saffron for artificial coloring, and chock full of ingredients that you’d never find in the real deal – paella is one of Spain’s trickiest dishes. Forget what you think you know about this pan of rice, we’re here to clear up some misconceptions.
First, a bit of history… Paella is actually more of a regional dish than a national one, one that originated in Valencia. It began as humble fare made by farm workers in the orchards and fields of the Albufera lagoon, a marshy, wet terrain that’s been home to rice fields since the 10thcentury. They used whatever was on hand to make lunch – rice, of course, along with tomatoes, onions, flat green ferradura beans, garrofón beans (like butter beans), and snails, eventually seasoning it all with saffron, rosemary, and paprika. They even used orange branches from the orchards to build the fire to cook it over. For special occasions, they added rabbit and duck or chicken.
Though Valencian paella is the most traditional of paellas, there are many iterations of the dish. Nevertheless, this is a dish that comes with many rules. Purists view all paellas that stray from the norm – the norm being a strict list of ingredients – as inferior and not authentic. Chorizo in a paella? Blasphemy. Mushrooms? Forget about it. Peas? This is what Spaniards call arroz con cosas.
We picked the brains of our expert chefs and went deep into paella research to bring you some do’s and don’ts. Whether you’re cooking paella or you’re searching for a place to eat it, keep these tips in mind! Or better yet, join us for our Spanish Cooking Class: Paella & More! in our cooking schools in San Sebastian, Sevilla, and London.
- THE RICE / Rice is the foundation that soaks up all the other flavors. The best rice? That grown near Valencia: short round grain varieties like bomba, senia, and bahía. And don’t use too much! A real paella is just a thin layer of rice – if you’re sitting in front of a pan that’s several inches of rice deep, you’re not eating a real paella.
- THE PAN / A paella pan is a necessity! It’s not really a paella otherwise… The paellera is wide and shallow enough to allow the rice to cook evenly and the socarrat to develop. Pans should be made from carbon steel – something that will quickly cool once the paella is off the heat so that it won’t overcook. Don’t use heavy pans like cast iron or non-stick ones.
- THE TECHNIQUE / Don’t stir! This isn’t risotto. We’re aiming for dry, tender texture and socarrat, not creamy or gloopy rice.
- SOCARRAT / Perhaps the most emblematic feature of paella, this crispy layer of caramelized rice at the bottom of the pan is the prized bit that everyone fights over – the perfect bite. If there’s no socarrat, it’s not a paella.
- TAKE YOUR TIME / No shortcuts! No quick cook rice, no food coloring instead of saffron, no stock cube. Take the time to make a great stock – don’t skimp, don’t be cheap – because this will be the foundation of flavor.
- FLAVOR / Leave the bones and shells on. Bone-in meat and whole shrimp deepen the flavor.
- THE FIRE / Ideally, paella is cooked over an open fire, imbuing the dish with an aromatic and smoky essence. And even more ideally, the fire is made from orange tree branches, just like the farmers in Valencia used to do it.
- ENJOY! / There’s no such thing as paella for one. Or even two, really. This is a communal dish; if you’re in a restaurant that serves single portions, it’s a tourist trap.