Mentioning the preparation of paella in front of a Valencian will instantly forge a friendship. The Valencian will be delighted to explain the optimal way to cook paella and the necessary ingredients. Respecting these authentic traditions and ingredients is essential; deviating from them implies it’s no longer a true paella. Strict? Perhaps.
However, Valencians are unquestionably proud of “their” paella. Most families in Valencia and its surroundings spend every Sunday enjoying Paella Valenciana, a deeply ingrained ritual.
For most non-Spaniards, paella is considered a national dish of Spain. However, for the majority of Spaniards, it’s a regional Valencian dish. Valencians, on the other hand, see paella as one of the most important symbols of their city and their own identity. Paella is typically served at lunch, deemed too heavy for dinner in the Spanish perception. Only tourists request paella at night!
Dry Rice and Crispy Bottom
Rice plays a significant role in paella. The best paella is made using local paella rice.
This rice has a medium grain size and can absorb large amounts of liquid. These types of rice also retain their shape and do not become sticky.
Paella is a dish of dry rice and therefore differs from Italian risotto. A well-prepared paella has the least possible residual moisture. The rice should absorb all the moisture.
Additionally, it’s important to create a considerable amount of “socarrat”: the crispy bits of rice that stick to the bottom of the pan. The fact that Valencians have a word that means “the crispy bits of rice that stick to the bottom of the pan” is proof of how seriously they take their rice.
Large Pans on an Open Grill
Cooking paella is not done in a regular frying pan. There’s only one way to cook authentic paella, and that is in a large, flat paella pan.
Why use a paella pan?
The large, flat cooking surface and shallow edges ensure better heat distribution and encourage the evaporation of moisture and the formation of the crispy socarrat.
The paella pan has been used in Spain for centuries and distributes heat evenly. Using it in an oven, on a stove, or over a wood fire is safe. Paella pans are often too large for a regular kitchen. That’s why many Valencians have a paella pan in the garden or on the terrace. It’s a kind of stone barbecue, where they cook paella over a wood fire made of orange wood. A round grill or a special gas burner for paella are good alternatives and are also often used. The most important thing is that the bottom of the pan heats evenly.
Of course, you can also cook paella in a large pan at home. If the pan is big enough, it will taste quite good. However, the presentation is much less than that of a real paella pan. You’re more likely to get a clean Asian rice dish than a Spanish paella.
A Final Family Dish
Ask any Valencian who cooks the best paella, and they’ll tell you it’s their mother, mother-in-law, or more likely, their father. Cooking paella is one of the few culinary tasks that Spanish men take on at home. Probably the main reason they do it is because they get to play with fire.
Some Valencians refuse to eat paella in restaurants. Nothing is as good as a homemade paella, and no one can prepare it better than they can!
Spanish chefs are not only very selective about the ingredients and the perfection in the preparation of paella. Above all, it’s the family atmosphere that is a big part of the dish. Eating together in a large pan in a family setting, along with many other people, enhances the social bond.
The group factor is therefore vital when cooking paella. Spaniards don’t cook rice for two. A Spanish saying goes, “The more, the merrier.”
Both the preparation and consumption of paella are a true family affair.
Some Tips for Cooking Paella
Mastering the art of cooking paella involves not only understanding the traditions and techniques but also fine-tuning the details that can make a significant difference in the final dish.
In this section, we’ll share some valuable tips and insights to enhance your paella-making skills and bring out the authentic flavors of this iconic Spanish delicacy.
- Don’t put too much rice in the paella pan. Need more rice? Use a larger pan.
- Never add onions to paella. Paella is a “dry” rice dish. Onions are moist vegetables. Use onions in other rice dishes, but never in paella.
- Don’t put a lid on the paella pan. If the liquid has evaporated and the rice is still not cooked, sprinkle a little water over the rice.