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What Is Paella?
Paella is both the name of a large pan and the name of the Spanish rice dish traditionally prepared in the eponymous pan. Paella is the Catalan word for “pan,” derived from the Latin patella. (So “paella pan” is technically redundant!) This special pan contributes to paella’s unique texture—thin and shallow, a paella allows for quick and even cooking, yielding a dry rice dish (called arròs seco) in which each grain is separate.
In a true Spanish paella, the cooking liquid is fully absorbed when the rice is al dente, making paella more like fried rice than creamy risotto. While paella can have many different ingredients, from the traditional rabbit and snails to the plethora of seafood beloved in coastal regions, it always contains three key ingredients that lend paella its signature orangey-red hue:
What Is the History of Paella?
The story of paella is one of cultural syncretism: The Moors introduced rice to Spain in the eighth century. They planted rice in Albufeira, a freshwater lake in Valencia where the crop still grows today. Valencian farmers prepared the rice—adding local beans, rabbit, duck, chicken, and snails— in a shallow pan over a fire made from the branches of olive or orange trees and vine cuttings.
What Is Paella Valenciana?
Paella valenciana is the original paella dish that the Valencian farmers cooked over open flames, starting in the late nineteenth century. It was seasoned with saffron, probably also due to Moorish influence. Traditionally, men prepared paella valenciana outdoors on Sundays while women were at church; the dish was eaten communally, straight from the pan. Since that time, paella has taken on many forms, but it’s still seen as a lunch dish in Spain, best prepared over an open fire.
What Do You Need to Make Paella?
- A paella: A large, shallow, two-handled pan called a paella ensures even cooking, with as much rice as possible making contact with the bottom of the pan. Paellas are thin, which means they heat up very fast. That, combined with an extra-large surface area, means the cooking liquid evaporates quickly, yielding the desired dry texture. Paellas are typically made of seasoned carbon steel. If you don’t have a paella, you can use one (or more!) large skillets, preferably made of thin aluminum or stainless steel—avoid cast iron and other heavy materials.
- A fire: A source of heat wide enough to accommodate the entire, very wide pan, and hot enough to ensure quick cooking and caramelization (the coveted socarrat). Vine cuttings and citrus wood are traditional, probably simply because that’s what was readily available, but the acidity of the wood also creates a very hot fire, which is what you want for paella.
What Ingredients Are in Paella?
- Rice: Arguably the most important ingredient in Paella. The rice should be very absorbent short or medium-grain rice—never long-grain rice. Short-grain rice (such as Bomba, aka Calasparra) can absorb a ton of water before becoming mushy. Substitute the more widely available Italian Arborio rice, or other short-grain rice. (Chef Russell Moore of Camino prefers Japanese short-grain rice, which he rinses and dries to counter stickiness.)
- Sofrito: The flavor base of paella, sofrito typically contains green or red peppers, garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes.
- Stock or broth: A good stock can turn good paella into great paella. Meat-based paellas typically use chicken stock, while seafood paellas rely on fish stock. If you have homemade stock, use it!
- Herbs and spices: Saffron: Adds color and flavor. Since saffron is so expensive, a lot of paellas use dyes. A little goes a long way, though! It’s worth it to use real saffron at home. Pimentón: Smoked sweet Spanish paprika. Rosemary: Traditional flavor from the time when snails were used in Valencian paella—the snails were fed rosemary for several days before being cooked.
- Seafood: Prawns, shrimp, clams, mussels, crayfish, squid, and langoustines are all popular additions to seafood paella.
- Meat: Although rabbit, chicken, and snails are the most traditional paella meats, pork and Spanish chorizo have become popular, too. (Paella purists, however, insist that chorizo flavor overpowers a complex paella.)
- Vegetables: A traditional paella valenciana contains three types of local beans—ferraura (string bean), garrofo (similar to a lima bean), and tavella (white bean)—but most preparations outside Valencia feature green beans, peas, lima beans, or other types of white beans. Artichoke hearts are a common addition to paella, and vegetarian paellas can feature all kinds of vegetables, including the coveted calçot—a special type of Spanish spring onion—when in season.
Tips for Cooking Paella
- Leave the rice alone to create a crispy crust called socarrat. These bits of caramelized rice found on the bottom and sides of the pan are highly coveted and will only form if you resist stirring the paella once the rice has been added.
- Know your heat source. If going the traditional wood-fire route, the smoke will mix with the steam from the paella, commingling and condensing back into the cooking liquid and adding a strong smoky flavor to the dish. If making a fire isn’t an option, but you still want the outdoor paella experience, you can try a coal-fueled barbecue. To create a wide base of heat indoors, try heating several burners at once and moving the pan around for more even cooking.
- Leave out the onions—they make the rice soft.
- Keep shellfish heads and chicken skins on. Leaving shellfish heads and shells on adds flavor to the paella’s cooking liquid. The same goes for chicken, which should be bone-in, skin-on.
- Use any part of the chicken, but chicken thighs are generally preferred to chicken breasts because they’re less likely to dry out.
Classic Spanish PaellaEMAIL RECIPE
- 4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
- Kosher salt, to taste
- Dry white wine (optional)
- 8 clams, soaked and scrubbed
- 8 mussels, scrubbed
- 4 cup low-sodium chicken stock
- 3-4 tablespoons olive oil, or enough to coat the bottom of the pan
- 8 head-on prawns or jumbo shrimp (or 12 large shrimp)
- 1 lb green beans (or peas)
- 1 small mild green pepper, such as Basque Fryer (or ½ green bell pepper)
- 1 small mild red pepper, such as Ñora (or ½ red bell pepper)
- 2-4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 ripe tomatoes, grated, skin and seeds removed (or 1 cup canned diced tomatoes)
- 2 cups short-grain rice, such as Bomba or Arborio
- 2 teaspoons piménton dulce (sweet smoked paprika)
- 1 pinch (about ¼ teaspoon) saffron threads, dissolved in 2 tablespoons water or dry white wine
- 2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley
- lemon wedges, to serve (optional)
- Season chicken with a generous pinch of salt at least one hour and up to one day before cooking.
- Steam the clams and mussels: Bring 1½ cups of water (or a mix of water and dry white wine) to boil in a medium saucepan. Add the clams and mussels and lower the heat to medium-high. Steam until clams and mussels have opened, about 2 to 6 minutes. (Start checking regularly after 3 minutes.) Transfer opened clams and mussels to a bowl, and discard any that do not open.
- Combine the chicken stock with 4 cups water and set aside.
- Set up your paella station: Set a 17- to 18-inch paella or two 12-inch thin stainless steel or aluminum pans over a hot wood fire, coal barbecue, or several medium-high gas burners. (If using multiple burners, remember to move the pan around while cooking.) Coat the pan with olive oil.
- Add the prawns or shrimp to the pan and cook until slightly more pink and mostly cooked through, about 6 to 8 minutes. Set aside.
- Add chicken to the pan and cook until browned on all sides, about 15 minutes.
- Make the sofrito: Over medium heat, add green beans and peppers, stirring occasionally until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and tomato and cook until mostly evaporated, about 5 to 10 minutes. The sofrito should be darker in color and less acidic in taste.
- Add the piménton, then pour in the broth-water mixture and stir together. Add the saffron and stir. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Let simmer for 20 minutes, reducing the heat and rotating the pan if necessary.
- Taste the liquid and season with salt to taste. Return the clams, mussels, and prawns to the pan. Raise heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Add the rice and stir to distribute evenly; do not stir any more after this point. Cook for 10 minutes.
- Lower the heat and simmer until liquid is absorbed and rice is al dente, 10 to 15 minutes longer. If the rice has not developed a crispy crust around the edges (soccarat), raise the heat and cook 1 to 2 minutes longer, careful not to burn the rice.
- Remove from heat and let rest 5 to 10 minutes under foil or a clean towel. Garnish with parsley and lemon wedges and serve warm, straight out of the pan.
3 Classic Paella Recipe Variations
- Seafood. Paella de marisco, or seafood paella, is one of the most beloved types of paella. It’s typically made with fish stock and a variety of shellfish, sometimes with the addition of cod, monkfish, squid, or octopus.
- Vegetarian. Most paella restaurants now offer a vegetarian option, made with vegetable broth and topped with Mediterranean staples such as artichokes, mushrooms, tomatoes, and onions.
- Black rice. Although not technically a paella, arròs negre (aka arroz negro) is another Valencian/Catalan dish with similar flavors. The rice is dyed black with squid ink, and full of cooked squid and shellfish.