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17 Secrets To a Great Paella

Paella is a dish that has it all – almost literally. A one dish meal that can feed 2 or 200 and has room for anybody’s favorite ingredients, even a bad paella is better than a lot of other things you could be eating. Fortunately, making a great paella is pretty easy. And while these touches may not be mentioned in any particular recipe, they will always make your paella better.

  1. Use the right rice. Good Valencia or Calasparra rice is the only kind you should use in your paella. Bomba rice is the best. More common rice varieties like Jasmine or conventional long grain don’t absorb liquid as well. Using Arborio rice results in mushy paella.
  2. Use a real paella pan. If you don’t have one, you should get one. They are not very expensive and the difference they make is well worth it. Paella pans are designed to maximize the amount of rice touching the bottom of the pan, which is where all the flavor is. They also allow you to move the food from hotter to cooler areas as needed during the cooking process.
  3. Try to use a heat source that can accommodate the entire pan. Depending on the size of your stove and the size of your paella pan, you may have to straddle two burners. You can also use an open fire, or an outdoor paella burner.
  4. Use only the best ingredients. By best I don’t mean the most expensive. I mean the freshest, nicest stuff you can find. If the green peppers look a little run down today but the red ones look terrific, get the red ones. Never use an ingredient just because the recipe says so.
  5. Prep first, then cook. The French call this mise en place, doing everything except the cooking before you turn on the stove. All the chopping, peeling, cleaning, everything. Sounds like it takes more time but it really doesn’t, and it makes the cooking process go much more smoothly. I usually put my prepared ingredients into small bowls or ramikens (just like you’ve seen every TV chef do a million times, except I don’t have a staff to do it for me) and just dump them in as needed. Takes the stress out of preparing even the most complicated dishes.
  6. The sofrito provides the base for your flavor. Sauté aromatics like garlic, onion, tomato, and bell pepper until the flavors meld and the liquids are evaporated. The finished sofrito should be firm enough to hold its shape in a spoon.
  7. A flavorful cooking liquid makes for flavorful paella. Cooking your rice in stock adds an additional layer of flavor that really makes a huge difference. If you don’t have stock available, add bouillon to the water. And of course, most paella recipes call for the addition of saffron to the cooking liquid, which adds another layer of flavor.
  8. Brown your meat aggressively. One of the most common mistakes home cooks make is not browning their meats enough, usually out of fear of burning them. Browning is the key to getting that deep, “cooked all day” flavor in your dishes. You are trying to develop the sugars in the meat, getting them to carmelize, and that takes time.
  9. Season as you go. Too often we season our food one time during the cooking process. Seasoning every group of ingredients as they are added and combined is what creates depth and layers of flavor, the things that separate a great meal from a good one. Every group of ingredients should be properly seasoned.
  10. The most important utensil in your kitchen is a spoon. Taste, taste, taste. After every round of seasoning, taste the food and adjust as needed. And again a few minutes before the paella is done. And again before serving. This can’t be stressed enough. You should never be surprised by what you are serving – that pleasure is reserved for your guests.
  11. Remember, this is cooking, not baking. Baking is chemistry, and the recipes are formulas. Cooking is half art, half physics, half magic (I know, that’s three halves. That’s why it’s magic), and the recipes are guidelines. Let Emeril be your role model in this regard.
  12. Adding the broth. When you add the broth to your paella, it should boil vigorously for a few minutes, until the rice starts to show above the surface. You will then turn the heat down an allow it to simmer. You can move the pan around all you want to even out the heat, but do not stir the rice. That bears repeating – do not stir the rice once it has been added. If the liquid appears to be boiling off a little too quickly you will need to add more, so keep some hot water or broth handy.
  13. Know when your rice is done. The rice should be al dente, not mushy. If you break a grain in half you will see a small white dot in the middle. This should take about 20 minutes. If you are cooking over 2 burners, you can cover the pan with foil for the last 2 minutes to even out the cooking, or put the pan in a 450 degree oven for the last 10 minutes, uncovered.
  14. The Socarrat. The crispy crust that forms at the bottom of the paella is the most prized part of the dish. To get a good socarrat, turn up the heat during the last few minutes of cooking, paying close attention to the sound (the rice should crackle) and the smell (toasty, not burnt smelling). After a few minutes test the bottom with a spoon. If you feel a bumpy resistance, you have socarrat.
  15. Let your paella rest. When the cooking process is finished, set your paella aside off the heat for 5 to 10 minutes, covered with aluminum foil. This allows the flavors to come together.
  16. Serving your paella. Traditionally, paella is eaten right out of the pan, with each guest marking out a triangle for their portion. If you aren’t quite that close to your guests, let everyone fill their plate right from the pan. It’s social, and it makes for fewer dirty dishes.
  17. Use your imagination. While a lot of people will talk about “authentic” paella, and there are many recipes that are indeed very popular in Spain, the truth is that paella is a combination of the pan, the rice, the technique, and the best, freshest ingredients you can find. Substitute as needed – the paella police aren’t watching.

As you have probably noticed, many of these tips will work with any recipe, not just paella. Cooking a paella is still cooking, and a lot of techniques are universal. Take your time, use your imagination, and you will be enjoying terrific paellas for years to come.

Matt Wasserman