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What Is Paella?
Paella is both the name of the Spanish rice dish, and the large two-handled pan traditionally used to prepare it. 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.
7 Essential Paella Ingredients
While paella can have many different components, from rabbit and snails to the plethora of seafood beloved in coastal regions, it almost always contains the following key ingredients:
- Rice. Arguably the most important ingredient, paella rice should be very absorbent short- or medium-grain rice, never long-grain. Short-grain rice can absorb more water before becoming mushy, helping you achieve the perfect, dry texture. Kinds of rice that work well in paella include Spanish Bomba or Calasparra varieties, as well as the more widely available Italian Arborio rice.
- Sofrito. Like mirepoix in French cuisine, sofrito is an aromatic base that serves as the foundation of paella’s flavors. Spanish sofrito typically contains green or red peppers, onions, 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. The most important spice for a traditional paella is saffron, which gives the ish its rich, golden color. However, because saffron is so expensive (more expensive by weight than gold, in fact), some paella cooks use turmeric or dyes instead. Other key spices for paella include pimentón, or smoked sweet Spanish paprika, and rosemary, a traditional spice from the time when snails were a common paella ingredient.
- 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 beans: ferraura (string bean), garrofo (similar to a lima bean), and tavella (white bean). However, most preparations outside Valencia feature green beans, peas, lima beans, or other types of white beans. Artichoke hearts are also 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.
7 Tips for Cooking Paella
Cooking paella can be a large undertaking. Here are some tips for getting the best results.
- Use the right pan. The large, shallow profile of a paella ensures even cooking, with as much rice as possible making contact with the bottom of the pan. Paellas pans 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. 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.
- Leave the rice alone. The best paellas thoroughly cook the bottom layer of rice 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.
- Use the right heat. Traditional paella chefs cooked over open flames, resulting in an expansive heat source that accommodates a wide pan and evenly cooks the paella on all sides. If you don’t have a wood fire or barbecue, you can replicate this effect on your stove by dividing your paella into smaller pans, or heating multiple burners at once and moving the pan around. To ensure quick cooking and caramelize your bottom layer of rice, be sure to cook your paella over high heat.
- Skip the onions. While some paella recipes include onions, many chefs choose to leave them out. That’s because onions contain a lot of moisture, which can make your paella rice soft.
- Don’t cover the pan. Unlike many other rice dishes, paella should always be cooked uncovered. This helps paella rice retain its signature al dente, “dry” texture.
- Leave shellfish shells and heads on. When using shrimp or other shellfish, be sure to leave the heads and shells on. adds flavor to the paella’s cooking liquid.
- Use bone in, skin-on, dark meat chicken. As with shellfish, chicken bones and skins contribute significant flavor to your cooking liquid. Chicken thighs and drumsticks are also generally preferred to chicken breasts for paella because they’re less likely to dry out during the cooking process.
Classic Spanish Paella Recipe
Prep Time20 min
Total Time1 hr 35 min
Cook Time1 hr 15 min
- 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.
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