About Paella – Everything you wanted to know about Paella.
Paella comes to us from Spain, a dish of saffron-flavored rice combined with a variety of meats and/or shellfish as well as vegetables such as garlic, onions, peas, artichoke hearts and tomatoes. Paella was originally a laborers’ meal, cooked over an open fire in the fields and eaten directly from the pan using wooden spoons.Paella got its start when the Moors, who dominated Spain for almost 800 years, brought rice and saffron to Spain. There are differing opinions on the web as to whether paella started out as a seafood-based dish or a chicken and rabbit dish. Who knows, but today, you can choose from a wide variety of paella recipes. In Valencia, the temperate climate and fertile lands make an ideal spot for growing specialty rice, and the proximity to the sea makes seafood plentiful. The dish takes it’s name from the wide shallow pan that it is cooked in, traditionally called the Paella or Paellera. The recipe commonly known as Paellacan be more accurately be referred to as Arroz a la Paella (rice done in paella style.)
Paella is also an ideal outdoor dish for entertaining. It’s fun to cook, and it is a fun dish to serve and consume. You can prepare all your ingredients in the kitchen and then take them out to the cooker where you can prepare the entire dish as your guests consume sangria and watch your mastery of paella!
Before we proceed to the basics, let us take a look at what makes paella “authentic”.
Making “Authentic” Paella
We thought you would enjoy learning some of the “rules” and “traditions” of paella. Obviously, some of these are impossible or perhaps silly, but if you want to take your paella-making to the next level of authenticity, you might like to read on:
- Some extremists insist that true paella can only be made with the lime-rich water from the Valencia region of Spain. We find this just a bit over the top for our purposes since where in the world are we to find this water? Tap water should do fine for us.
- Others claim that there is only one true paella, paella valenciana, using chicken, rabbit and snails. All other paellas are merely un arroz en una paella, literally “rice in a paella pan.” Again, a bit over the top, and no reason to not try the many hundreds of paella recipes to be found.
- A more reserved restriction found in Valencia is that paella is not a mixture of seafood, meat and sausage, or a mixta. It is thought that each ingredient should be savored and appreciated on its own.
- Most people do agree, however, that authentic paella should be made with short or medium grain rice that will absorb all the flavors of the ingredients in the paella. It isn’t paella if it is made with long grain rice.
- Most also agree that real paella must contain olive oil, a sofrito, and saffron. We’ll discuss the sofrito below when discussing the pillars of paella.
- Paella should be cooked in a wide flat paella pan (this puts rice into contact with the pan so it can be cooked in a thin layer, it cooks evenly, and produces a dry texture and separate firm grains. Paella should never be creamy.
- The rice isn’t put into the paella until every guest has arrived. People can wait for the rice, but the rice cannot wait for the people.
- Paella in Spain is often made by the man. A man who would otherwise totally shun the kitchen views the making of paella his obligation.
- Traditionally, paella is made outdoors and eaten outdoors.
- Also, traditionally, paella is made over an open wood fire, using branches from orange and olive trees.
- In Spain, paella is never made for less than two, so expect that if you happen to order a paella in a Spanish restaurant.
- In the Spanish home, traditionally, paella is made only for lunch, never for dinner.
- As far as serving is concerned, paella is typically eaten directly from the pan. The paella maestro, el paellero or la paellera, decides who gets the best pieces of meat, such as the front legs of the rabbit
The Basics: Pillars of Paella
- The rice,
- The pan,
- The heat
- The sofrito,
- The liquid, and
- The soccarat.
The best rice for paella is bomba, a Spanish short-grain rice that is able to absorb three times its volume in liquid. When cooked, the grains remain separate ando not stick together. (The rice in paella should be dry and separate when done, not creamy like risotto.) According to the La Mesa Foods website:
“Grown in the rich soils of the national protected L’Albufera Park of Valencia, Spain, Bomba rice is the crème de la crème, the pinnacle of paella making. Hard to find even in Spain due to the difficulty in growing it and a far lower yield at harvest time, it will improve any of your Spanish rice dishes. Although it’s been around for centuries, Bomba rice is almost unknown outside of Spain. But Bomba is definitely better – you really can taste the difference. Why? Because Bomba can soak up very large quantities of liquid while remaining very firm-grained during cooking. This means that Bomba rice will be much more flavorful when it is finished cooking than standard Spanish fare would be. It’s also a high-integrity grain and even after it has absorbed all that liquid, Bomba is still firmer and more distinct than any other rice variety out there.”
Another benefit of Bomba rice is that since it is considered the best rice for paella, it is also the easiest rice for a beginner to use. Other varieties of short grain rice can require a bit of extra care to produce the best results.
Bomba rice is expensive compared to other rice varieties due to the care required in cultivation and the length of time required for it to mature. It is an heirloom rice which is currently being revived. The quote above aside, it is readily available these days from many suppliers in the United States.
Some of these “other” Spanish rices are less expensive than bomba, such as Calaspara rice, Signo Valencian rice and Extra Santo Tomas D.O. rice. Many of these other short-grain Spanish rices are used as every-day paella rices in Spain. Also, Goya sells a “Valencia” short grain rice meant for paella.
Spanish rices can be hard to find locally (we have yet to find any where we live), so other rices that you could use for lack of a Spanish short-grain rice would be rices like the medium-grain rice sold by Goya and Arborio. Arborio rice is considered an acceptable substitute, but beware agitating the rice and producing a risotto-like product. (Remember, paella is NOT creamy, but rather the grains remain separate and dry.) Do not use sushi rice as it is meant to produce a sticky product. Also do not use basmati rice, a fragile rice that will not stay together. And never use long grain rice as it will not absorb the flavors.
Also be aware that these different types of rice absorb different quantities of liquid, so you may need to adjust a recipe if you substitute a different type of rice. Bomba rice absorbs about 3 1/2 to 4 cups of liquid per cup of rice. Goya medium-grain rice absorbs about 2 1/2 cups of liquid per cup of rice.
The best pan for paella is, guess what, a paella. Yes, the name of the pan used to cook paella is the same as the name of the dish. They are also called paellera. (Apparently, this is the subject of some heated debate! Some say the name of the pan is paella and that paellera is the name of the outdoor place where the paella is made as well as the name of the woman who prepares the paella. Paellero, then, would be the name for a man who prepares the paella. We’ll refer to the pan as a paellera to avoid confusion between the dish and the pan. Our apologies if we offend anyone.) The paellera is wide, flat and has a splayed side. As you will see later, it is important that the rice be distributed over the pan in a layer no more than about 1/2 inch thick. So, to make more paella, you don’t pile it up thicker, you spread it out over more area. In other words, you get a bigger pan. Paelleras may have a slight depression in the middle to allow the oil to pool there for sauteing the ingredients. You can find paelleras made from carbon steel, stainless steel, copper, and carbon steel covered with a coat of enamel.
The base flavor is provided by a saute of aromatics called a sofrito. The components of the sofrito vary from region to region, but the technique is the same: saute until the vegetables soften, the flavors meld and the resulting mix is thick enough to hold its shape. The mixture will darken and turn into a thick puree.
The liquid used to cook the rice adds flavor and color to the rice. Usually a chicken broth will be used for a chicken paella while a shrimp or seafood broth would be used for a seafood paella. If you don’t have a seafood-based broth, you can simmer shrimp shells in salted water to produce a quick substitute. You can even use water if you like. Whatever you use, all recipes call for the liquid to be infused with saffron which, as we have already stated, will add color to the rice and even more flavor.
Soccarat is the caramelized crust of rice that will form between the rice and the pan. Every recipe or instructional piece on paella will talk about the soccarat. It has been called the “prize in a well-made paella.” The flavor of the rice will change and improve dramatically once the soccarat has formed, so it is well worth the effort to see that your paella forms one.
You should check the rice for doneness first. The rice should be al dente, not mushy. If you were to break open a grain of rice, you should see a tiny dot of white in the center. Note that if the liquid is gone and the rice is still not done, you can add a bit more hot broth or water and continue cooking. If the rice is getting done before all the liquid has been absorbed, then you can try to raise the heat to reduce the liquid faster.
To form the socarrat, you may need to increase the heat at the end of the cooking. Pay attention to the sound made by the cooking rice. Once it starts to crackle, you are close. You can gently run a spoon under the rice towards the edge. If the rice comes away from the pan cleanly, you aren’t done. Once the spoon feels like there is something sticking to the pan, you are there. The rice should smell toasty, but not burned.