Paella is one of my favorite meals. It is interesting, delicious, and impressive looking. It can also be quite intimidating. My goal today is to encourage you to tackle this dish at home. It is not as difficult as it looks and if you understand the short list of ways the dish can go wrong, you should have no problem making a meal you will be proud of. It’s a sexy dish and it looks really cheffy, even if you get a little lost in the middle. Plus, you make the entire meal in a single pot, so cleanup is pretty quick.
Normally, I would start an article like this with a brief definition of the dish. That is not such an easy task with paella. As it turns out, paella is one of the most divisive topics in the culinary world. People love to make rules about what constitutes a “real” paella. Then they like to talk about how anything outside their definition of the dish is an abomination. So, the first task in any discussion of paella is to decide what it is and where you draw your line, or circle, or venn diagram, or whatever other arbitrary limits you want to apply. I’ll give you mine.
Paella is a dish that originated in Valencia Spain. It contains rice.
Beyond that there is a lot of flexibility and it is really more of a method of cooking than a dish. It is a traditional Spanish dish in the way that pizza is a traditional Italian dish, which is to say that you can put almost anything in it. Many paella lovers will disagree, and to them I say, “Traditional Valencian Paella was made with water voles and snails as the protein, so unless your recipe contains rats and snails, it is as non-traditional as mine.” So, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about what paella could be.
The key components that make up an authentic paella for me, are the five S’s: saffron, smoke, seafood, socarrat, and sofrito. Let’s break down each of these:
Saffron – most recipes that you find in the United States are going to contain saffron. It has a flavor that feels very authentic and it gives the rice that traditional yellow color that you’d most certainly find if you Google search pictures of this dish. If you go to Spain today though, you’ll be hard pressed to find a restaurant that still uses saffron. For this humble peasant dish, saffron is simply too expensive for many restaurants to use. I love it though, and I use it every time.
Smoke – Paella was traditionally cooked over a wood fire in a pan specifically for paella. The smoke from the wood infuses the dish and gives it the signature smoky flavor. Wood fires can be a real pain for cooking, so you may need to get that smoky flavor into the dish in other ways. You can either use smoked paprika or you can blast the rice with high heat right at the end to get a little char on it. Another way to get some smoke flavor into the dish is to add a smoked sausage. Chorizo is a common addition, although purists will say that chorizo is the most common way that Latin Americans and North Americans bastardize paella. According to many, chorizo should never be added. If you like it, toss it in.
Seafood – Paella does not have to include seafood, but in my mind, shrimp and mussels should be the star of any paella. I have only tried a few different paellas in Spain and all of them included seafood. Maybe my narrow experience gives me a skewed impression of what paella should be, but since I write about seafood, that’s the particular paella I’m going to focus on. I’m sure chicken and sausage paella is fine. As for the type of seafood, you can pretty much choose anything you want as long as you understand the relative cook times. You need to add them in the correct order so that they all finish at the same time. You can buy something as simple as a paella mix that is all precooked and frozen. In that case, you would just dump it in when everything else is almost done, and then let it warm through. Or, you could add things like mussels, clams, shrimp, scallops, squid, octopus, cuttlefish, fish, or lobster. I haven’t seen a lot of crab in paella, but I’m sure you could find a way to make it work. Some recipes call for squid ink, which is pretty dramatic when you bring it to the table. Don’t be afraid to give it a try. It is becoming more common in grocery stores.
Socarrat – This is the name for the crusty sheets of rice that form on the bottom of the pan when cooking paella. It is a byproduct of the cooking method, which generally calls for cooking the rice without ever stirring it. This crispy delicacy is really quite magical when it is done right. It is a glorious textural contrast to all the soft vegetables and seafood. Many traditionalists will say that this element is required and is the signature characteristic of good paella, but it can be a bit difficult to achieve. It can be burned too much and give a bitter note to the dish, or if you don’t burn it at all, it can be missing from the dish altogether. Don’t worry if you don’t get it right. When you serve the dish, the socarrat will be great, or be awful, or it won’t be there at all. As long as you don’t scrape it off the bottom and stir it into the rice, it won’t hurt anything either way. If you find a nice slab of slightly charred rice on the bottom of the pan, don’t be afraid to eat it. In restaurants, you rarely get any. To give yourself the best chance of a good socarrat, cook the rice over a medium heat without stirring it until the seafood is mostly done, then blast it with high heat for the last 3-5 minutes. You may see some dark smoke come up from the bottom of the pan. Don’t be afraid of that. Kill the heat as soon at the smoke starts to smell a bit acrid.
Sofrito – This is the backbone of every paella. It sets the tone for the whole flavor profile. If the sofrito tastes great, chances are, you’ll produce a delicious end product. Sofrito is basically just aromatic ingredients braised in olive oil until they become a thick sauce. This is often the basis for Spanish, Italian, or Portuguese cuisines. It can be as simple as just onions cooked down in olive oil. My standard base mix for paella is olive oil, onions, celery, red and green bell peppers. These are sautéed for 10 minutes until softened. This is the starting point of all the paellas that I make, and they all differ from there.
Some or all of those five components form the foundation of paella. It leaves a lot of room for experimentation. Follow this general rhythm as a framework and feel free to experiment and adjust in your attempts. For those of you who prefer to just follow a recipe, I’ll give you one at the end. Regardless of whether you use a recipe or wing it, you’ll need to start with a large diameter shallow pan. There is a pan specifically designed for paella, but you can get by without one. Just pick your biggest pan and make sure you don’t stack everything too deep, even if your pan will hold it. One important part of the cooking process is that you should rarely, if ever, stir the rice. If the whole mix gets thicker than about 2 inches, the parts on top will not get enough heat to cook. Another thing to consider is that the size of the pan is only half of the equation. If your pan is 18 inches in diameter and your burner is only 10 inches, the outside edges will not get enough heat. You can cook it on your barbecue grill or a huge burner, or span two burners on your stove-top if the burners are spaced for that. I prefer to use the big propane burner that I use for crawfish boils.
- Build the sofrito. You can use equal parts celery, onions, red bell peppers, and green bell peppers, or you can swap any one of these for carrots. You could omit the celery. You could add a ton of garlic or a couple hot peppers. Cook these in plenty of olive oil.
- Add the flavor elements. Generally, you need to include saffron, smoked paprika, and bay leaves. You could also add thyme, garlic powder, fresh garlic, cumin, cayenne, rosemary, or chili powder. Give this a few minutes for the flavors to come together.
- Add the rice. The rice must go in before you add any liquids. Cook the rice for a couple minutes and allow all that oil to coat the rice. This step is really important. It seals the rice and keeps it from getting gummy later.
- Add the liquids. The ratio is important here because if you add too much liquid, you’ll end up with soupy rice at the end. Rice can vary by type, so you may need to adjust. You can get some clues from the package. For most types of rice, I add liquids at double the volume of the rice. In general, you should always have about 1/3 more liquid than the rice directions call for because paella is cooked in an open pan and a lot more water will evaporate. Remember that you need to consider all of the liquids that you add. If you add canned stewed tomatoes, you need to consider the liquid in there too. I count that as about ½ liquid. Remember that you can always add some stock or water if it starts to get too dry, but it is much harder to take it out. Just be cautious because as stock evaporates, the salt does not. The dish can end up very salty if you are not careful. You can dilute your stock with water, or use low sodium stock. Once the liquids are added, get them up to a boil, reduce the heat to medium high and cook the rice until it is mostly done, but still firm. Avoid stirring as much as possible and let the bottom burn just a bit to form the socarrat that is a signature of this dish. If it starts to burn too much, you can reduce the heat, add a little water, or as a last resort, break down and stir it. Just don’t scrape the bottom when you stir.
- Add peas and layer in the seafood. You’ll have to phase it in to make sure things cook evenly. For example, mussels will need at least 15 minutes, and shrimp will only need 5. If you put them in at the same time, the shrimp will be overcooked by the time you are done. Beyond the timing, there aren’t really any rules. This is the stage where you really get to be an artist. Arrange the seafood in any pattern that you like. Make a circle of mussels around the outside or make a star of shrimp, or make little arrangements that look like flowers. This dish really lets you play with your food. Just be careful to stack your seafood evenly, preferably in a single layer. If you put a pile of shrimp on top of the rice, the bottom layer will cook, but the top will cook much more slowly.
- Once the seafood is ready, get it to the table fast. I prefer to serve this dish family style because it looks really cool in the pan and people can get at that crispy socarrat.
Here’s my favorite paella recipe. Feel free to get creative and make as many substitutions as you want.