Paella is always fun to make and, of course, to eat. It’s a perfect way to feed a crowd and your family, and the best way to make it is over a fire. When it’s ready to serve, simply plunk it down in the center of the table and let everyone dig in. Family-style eating doesn’t get better than this.
Myriad versions of paella exist, depending on region and taste, but there are specific ingredients to use and techniques to follow for authentic results.
Think wide, low and flat. The key is to spread the rice in a thin layer, so that as many grains as possible are in contact with the bottom of the pan. This will ensure not only contact with the aromatics (soffrito), but the desired crispy bottom (socarrat) of the cooked paella. Paella pans are easy to find and affordable. I bought my 15-inch pan for less than $30. Alternatively, a very large cast iron skillet will do the trick.
Short-grain rice will absorb the liquid, remain relatively firm during cooking, and crisp — long-grain rice will not. Use short-grain rice, preferably Spanish Bomba or Valencia. Risotto (arborio) rice may be substituted, if necessary. Note: Depending on the rice, cooking times may vary slightly.
An important blend of sauteed aromatics, typically onion, garlic and grated ripe tomato, is used as a base to flavor the rice. It’s important to saute the ingredients until the moisture from the tomato and the wine evaporates and the soffrito thickens, and let it deepen in color to build flavor.
If possible, use a homemade stock; chicken or shrimp stock is ideal, although a good-quality store-bought chicken stock is a fine substitution. A key step is to add a generous pinch of saffron to the stock to infuse a subtle perfume and a burnished golden-red color.
This is the holy grail of paella, the coveted crispy bottom that forms in the pan while the paella is cooking. To achieve this, a few techniques are imperative. Do not overload the pan, or the rice will not be able to dry out and will not crisp. And most important, do not stir the paella once the rice is spread in the pan and topped with the proteins. You will know if the rice is crisping when the paella begins to make crackling sounds. This is the sure-fire way to know when the paella is ready, so be sure to wait for the “snap-crackle-pop” before you remove the pan from the grill!
It’s important for the pan to cook over an even heat source. A grill can accommodate the size of a large paella pan, unlike many stovetops. Plus, the fire will add a smoky backdrop to the dish.