Paella even has its own emoji 🥘 – it NEEDS to be made and eaten
Paella has bits of everything I love: rice, seafood, and most importantly socarrat: crispy crunchy toasted rice bits.
Have you ever been obsessed with a dish even though you’ve never eaten it? For me, that dish was paella. It was one of those food bucket list items – I don’t remember how or why I became so obsessed with having paella from its birthplace of Valencia, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the fact that paella is so pretty and such an iconic dish. It’s so iconic that people around the world think of it as the quintessential Spanish dish, even though it’s actually more Valencian. I mean, Valencia is in Spain, so it’s all good to me.
A couple of years ago Mike and I went to Valencia and the first thing we ate was paella! We literally got off the train and went to a paella restaurant. On the way there, there were a bunch of Valencian orange trees that had some pretty tempting looking oranges but apparently the orange trees that line the streets of Valencia are not the same sweet ones that they use for juice. Anyway, the paella in Spain was as good as I imagined. So good that all of our meals in Valencia were either paella or Spanish churros dipped in chocolate.
The paella was all things good: juicy seasoned meats, tender-crisp beans, and the best part, saffron scented rice with crispy toasty rice bits. It was a dream come true.
What is paella?
Paella, pronounced pay-EH-yah! is a rice dish made in a shallow, wide pan over an open fire. Paella means “frying pan” in Valencian. Traditionally, paella includes short grain rice, green beans, rabbit, chicken, and saffron, but nowadays there are a huge number of variations, from seafood to vegetarian. I made a mixta paella here, which is essentially a mixed paella that has meat, seafood, and vegetables.
How to make paella
- Soak the saffron. This will release both color and aroma. Pop some saffron into a small bowl with hot water and set aside.
- Sear the proteins. Heat up some olive oil in your paella pan over medium high heat and give your proteins a quick sear: the chicken goes in skin side down and the chorizo gets browned. Shrimp gets a quick toss in before being removed so it doesn’t over cook.
- Sweat the aromatics. Add the onions, garlic, tomatoes, and paprika and cook, stirring, until soft and fragrant.
- Add the liquids. Carefully add chicken stock and the saffron water and bring everything to a boil. Flip the chicken skin side up so it’s pretty.
- Add the rice. Time to sprinkle in the rice! Try to add it in a thin, even layer and use a spoon to spread it out if you need to. Let everything come to a simmer and cook, uncovered until the rice absorbs almost all the liquid.
- Add the seafood. Nestle in the clams and add the shrimp back on top.
- Cook on low until the clams open up and the rice is al denote.
- Socarrat time! Turn the heat up to high for 1-2 minutes to create a crispy toasty crunchy rice crust.
- Rest and enjoy. Cover the paella with some foil and let rest for 5 minutes before enjoying.
Because paella is truly all about the rice, the rice is the most important ingredient. Bomba rice, from Spain, is the best choice. It absorbs 3 times as much liquid than regular rice giving it 3 times as much flavor when all the liquid is absorbed. Plus cooked right, it stays firm and al dente. You can usually find bomba rice at Whole Foods or online.
Smoked Spanish Paprika
Smoked paprika comes in sweet and bittersweet, go for sweet smoked Spanish paprika. It adds smokiness, aroma, and color.
There’s a lot of controversy about what kind of protein goes into paella. If you’re not super concerned about authenticity you can customize your paella and put anything you want it. If you’re going with chorizo try to get a Spanish chorizo, which is dried and cured. But if you only have Mexican chorizo available, I think that’s okay too. Purists say that chorizo will overwhelm the other flavors, but we’ve had multiple paella in Valencia with (and without) chorizo, so it’s a personal choice. Other proteins you can use include chicken, pork, seafood, or really, anything you can dream of.
Most paella has vegetables in it, especially the paella we had while we were in Valencia. Usually it’s some sort of green bean, a variety that isn’t so common here in North America. You can sub in other green beans, add peppers, asparagus, artichokes, peas, olives, beans, chickpeas, really, it’s like the proteins, go wild!
A nicely seasoned stock as this is what’s going to add flavor to the insides of your bomba rice. That being said, if you’re salt adverse, I would do low sodium stock and then season afterwards. If you have the time, make a homemade seafood/shellfish or chicken stock, which makes it even easier to control the seasoning and flavor.
Saffron is what gives paella its gorgeous golden hue. The orange-red threads are earthy, floral, and add a distinct flavor. Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world. You only need about 1/2 teaspoon but it definitely adds to the overall flavor, so don’t skip out on it. Look for saffron threads that are deep red-orange and evenly colored. Saffron is sold in most large grocery stores and specialty food stores.
If you want the all important toasty rice bits, or socarrat, you’re going to need a paella pan. The width of a paella pan helps with rice distribution, ensuring that the rice cooks in a thin layer. A pan that feeds two is generally about 10-12 inches and a pan that serves eight is about 18 inches. The most popular pan sizes are 14 and 16 inches, which feed 4-6. Which size pan you get depends on how many people you plan to feed.
The wider the pan, the more people it feeds. They even have pans that are 4 feet wide! Years ago, around Christmas, Mike and I were in London and we saw two giant paella pans at Covent Garden. The saffron deliciousness wafting through the chilly air was so tempting so we decided to join the huge queue for a taste. I’m sure Hola Paella (now closed forever) wasn’t the most authentic paella in London, but it attracted a lot of attention and was a perfect snack to warm us up on a cold day.
What if I don’t have a paella pan?
If you’re wondering, can I use a cast iron skillet to make paella, the answer is yes! As long as you’re using the right rice, you can definitely use a cast iron skillet. Cast iron skillets are somewhat wide and conduct heat well, making them great for making paella. Use the biggest and widest cast iron pan you have so you can spread your rice out.
What rice should I use?
Paella should be made with Bomba or Calasparra rice, medium grain rices grown in Spain. Spanish rice is chubby and round, ideal for absorbing large amounts of liquid while still staying somewhat firm. You want your rice kernels stay separate and not creamy or mushy.
The rice really is the best part of a paella. I can eat loads and loads of that smoky, saffron flavoured rice and I have. I made a giant pan for Mike, myself and a good friend thinking there would definitely be leftovers (I used a pan that serves 6-8), but the three of us polished it off in one sitting. We totally fell into simultaneous food comas afterwards, but it was worth it. The best part was that there was more than enough socarrat to go around.
What is socarrat?
Socarrat is the essential layer of crispy crunchy toasted rice at the bottom of the pan when you cook your paella just right. Most people consider it the best parts. It’s caramelized and toasty and nutty and has all the flavors of paella concentrated.
I hope you guys give this recipe a try. I mean, paella even has its own emoji 🥘 – it NEEDS to be eaten.
smoky saffron rice and crispy bits forever,
Stir the saffron into 1⁄4 cup hot water in a small bowl and let bloom for 15 minutes.
In a 16″–18″ paella pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the chorizo and the chicken, skin side down. Add the the shrimp and cook, flipping occasionally, until browned, about 5 minutes, then transfer the shrimp to a plate, leaving the meats to sear in the pan.
Add the onions, garlic, tomatoes, and paprika and cook, stirring often, until the onions soften, about 6 minutes. Add the saffron and 4 cups of chicken stock. Flip the chicken so it’s skin side up and bring everything to a boil over high heat.
Sprinkle in the rice, distributing evenly, then add the peppers on top. Cook, uncovered, without stirring, until rice has absorbed most of the liquid, about 12-15 minutes. If the pan is larger than the burner, rotate it every two minutes to evenly distribute the heat. Once the stock is low enough, add the remaining 2 cups chicken stock.
Reduce heat to low, and top with the cooked shrimp. Nestle in the clams, hinge side down. Continue to cook, without covering or stirring, until the clams opened and the rice absorbs the liquid and is al dente, 5–10 minutes more. Turn heat to high for 1-2 minutes to create the socarrat. Remove pan from heat, cover with aluminum foil, and let sit for 5 minutes before enjoying.
You also can grate the tomatoes on the largest holes of a box grater. Be careful and discard the skin afterwards.