The trick is to let the rice burn and stick to the bottom of the pan. I knew this much going into my research into the history and traditions of a proper paella, that quintessentially Spanish dish of saffron rice cooked and served in a wide, shallow iron skillet, spiked with both meat and fish.
What is paella and how do you cook it the best?
The best paellas have pockets of slightly burnt, charcoal-y rice that has stuck to the bottom of the pan only to be scraped off and circulated along with the perfectly-cooked mounds. But there’s a fine line between burning rice for taste and accidentally burning too much and spoiling a meal. But having given away the trick, at least the theory behind it, I was curious to learn as much as I could about the dish itself.
Like so much of Spain’s best indigenous cooking, there is a hint of the Middle East and North Africa in it, and paella is no different. Rice, of course, has agricultural origins in Asia, not the Iberian Peninsula, so any rice dish, by default, must trace its roots to the east. The rice came to Spain by way of the Arabs, who occupied it for so many centuries after the ancient Romans and Visigoths held sway (Muslim rule of Spain dates from 711-1492).
The word paella is related to the ancient Sanskrit word “Pa,” which means “to drink.” Latin terms like patella borrow the same Sanskrit origin, so “paella” is thought to borrow that same prefix, “pa.” In practice today it refers to the very specific type of pan in which paella is cooked: very wide and very shallow, which exposes a maximum amount of rice to the hot bottom of the pan, to encourage that lovely burnt crisping. While you can make paella in a normal pan, it’s not going to satisfy the aficianados. That said, I just can’t imagine cooking this dish enough to warrant buying a paella pan, which is not particularly useful for anything else. So I’ll use my widest normal pan, cast iron, and hope for the best.
There is no certain origin story for how paella came to be, but a reasonable guess is that the royal cooks at an Arab court threw leftovers from a banquet into a pan of rice. Rice was grown in Spain during the Arab era, and the seemingly random, yet strikingly delicious, smorgasbord of meats (chicken, sausage), vegetables (anything you like) and fish (shrimp, clams, and more) suggest an origin along these lines—cleaning out the fridge, so to speak, and inventing something wonderful in the process.
Logistics account for the belief that Valencia is where paella was invented, and perfected. This is the first place that ancient Romans introduced irrigation systems, and where the Arabs planted rice. There surely was no concern over a special paella pan long ago, and the idea that a pan should be flat is a modern concept, borne of flat-top burners—most cooking of the past was done in round containers that we might call cauldrons, designed to either hang over, or sit upon, an open fire.
But the flat-bottomed paella pan, with its sides only a thumbs’-width high, and usually studded with “dimples” has a long tradition—just how long no one knows, but certainly hand-hammered paella pans are known. Today, factory-produced paella pans include the “dimples” which visually recall the irregular bottom of hand-hammered pans, but also trap liquid between the raised dimples, which promotes even cooking.
Traditional paella is cooked over an open fire, and a very hot one. This is common throughout the Mediterranean for the logistical reason that the region had few slow-burning woods, but a lot of woods with a high acid content, which therefore burn quickly and very hot, according to kitchenproject.com.
When it came time to make my own paella, I cheated, I’ll admit—I did not buy a special pan, nor did I make a fire. Despite cutting these corners, I wanted to get the ingredients right. You want a rice that holds its shape (not like risotto rice, Arborio, which should become creamy), and one that is not Asian, and is grown around Valencia. Bomba is the preferred choice (and is also fun to say).
Onions, garlic, quartered artichokes, green peas and red peppers make up the traditional vegetables. The required seasonings are Spanish smoked paprika and saffron, which gives paella its distinctive golden color. Saffron has long been, by weight, the most expensive ingredient in the world, but a little goes a long way and a few strands will produce a subtle flavor and lovely color. Meat and fish can take any number of varieties, but chicken and chorizo is standard, as are shrimp, clams, and mussels. All of these are easy to get, so I stuck with this more focused list, though no one would argue if I had included lobster, crab, snails, goat or rabbit. Garnished with lemon wedges, you’re good to go.
The tricky part about the cooking is that instinct tells you to stir the rice a lot, but you don’t want this. The rice must cook through, but once it’s cooked you want to keep heating the bottom of the pan without stirring at all, so the bottom is burnt. Diners traditionally eat from the outside edge toward the center, spooning the paella directly out of the pan, which forms the centerpiece of the table setting (rather than doling out a portion onto their own plate). The burnt rice at the bottom is not tossed but scraped at by the diners as they eat. There’s a special term for this jewel of the dish, the burnt rice: socarrat. That’s the key that would make the dish a success or a failure.
I was able to get a nice burn by using a cast-iron pan (iron gets much hotter than aluminum or more common pan materials, and so is better at things that you want to burn, or crust, whether it’s paella rice, steaks or burgers). But my pan had sides that were a bit too deep, trapping moisture and making the rice stickier than the best paellas I’ve had in Spain would find acceptable. The chorizo I found at my local supermarket was fine but uninspiring, but it was helped by real smoked Spanish paprika that I bought in Madrid many moons ago. I used too little saffron, I think (maybe I’m a cheapskate), so the color was not as golden as I had hoped. In truth, what I produced felt like more of a stir-fried rice dish than a paella proper. Maybe there is really something to that magic paella pan. But can my kitchen accommodate a one-dish dish, which will sit and gather dust for all but two or three meals a year? I think the most logical solution is to buy the pan and just cook paella often enough to make it worthwhile. Or I can just fly off to Valencia a few times a year and let someone else do the cooking.