Lena is a foodie and home cook from the SF Bay Area with a passion for Spanish flavors and traditional cooking with a modern touch!
So you want to make paella...
Maybe you've just returned from an amazing vacation in Spain. Maybe your grandmother made it for the family on special occasions. Maybe you just love Spanish food. Whatever the case, you've got that craving and you want to try to cook paella at home. You've waded through debates on the best paella ingredients and found a recipe you'd like to try. You're all set to go. Only one problem: you don't have the pan.
Now you're asking yourself, do I really need to add another piece of specialized cookware to my already-cluttered kitchen? If you're serious about making this Valencian classic, the answer is a resounding, "YES!" Paella pans are particularly designed to give you the best results, and if you're going to bother to put in all the work, you want the final product to turn out well!
If you've ever had a really top-notch paella, you know that the variety of textures and flavors is important in creating a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts. This is due in large part to the shape of the pan.
One of the best parts of this traditional Spanish dish is the soccarat, or caramelized crust at the bottom.The rice and other ingredients on top should be cooked through (but not mushy!) and moist (but not watery!). To achieve the perfect balance, you need to have a wide, shallow pan to maximize amount of rice in contact with the bottom. You should never fill it deeper than a finger's width (about half an inch).
A traditional paellera also has two looped handles for easy removal from heat, and is sometimes dimpled on the bottom. If you have a smooth-top ceramic or induction burner, you will want a paella pan with a completely flat bottom (rather than dimpled) for even cooking.
Some pans also have a depression in the middle, which is used for sautéing your aromatics to make sofrito, at the beginning of the recipe. It's up to you whether you like this feature or not!
Even heat is key to making a truly delicious dish. If you've ever seen it being prepared on the street, you may have seen special burners created especially for this purpose. But for the home cook, that simply isn't practical. That's why it's vital to buy cookware that your stove top can easily accommodate; you won't get the nice crust you're looking for if you're constantly moving the pan trying to get all the sides to cook evenly. If you absolutely must, place the pan over two burners and periodically rotate the pan a quarter turn at a time.
You do have the option of cooking outdoors instead. If you're handy with a wood fire, you can use that as your heat source (though the temperature can be difficult to control). I only recommend trying that if you have experience cooking over an open flame. For the less adventurous, a charcoal or gas grill also works, especially if you need a bigger cooking vessel to serve more people!
Finally, the last reason you need to make this investment, but definitely not the least: appearance. Experts may disagree about their favorite ingredients or cooking method, but they all agree on one thing: paella must be served in the pan. You know what they say! "You eat with your eyes first." And serving your guests paella on a plate just isn't half as impressive as carrying the pan to the table!
If you're at all artistic, you can take your food presentation to the next level by arranging the ingredients by hand. For inspiration, check out the gorgeous paellas (like the one below) that are served at one of the best restaurants in Berkeley, La Marcha Tapas Bar.
Caring for Your Paella Pan
If you've made the investment in a new cooking vessel, you want to take care of it so that it lasts. Start by seasoning your new pan:
- Remove labels and boil water in the pan for 10 minutes.
- Wash the pan thoroughly with soap and water.
- Dry completely.
- Apply a thin coat of olive oil.
After every use, you will need to scrub with soap and water, then rub a new coat of oil into the surfaces to re-seal them.
Also, remember that you should only use wooden utensils on your paella pan, never metal!
With a little TLC, it should last a very long time.
How to Season Your New Paella Pan
Alternatives to a Paella Pan
If, after all this, you can't or don't want to buy a paella pan, that's ok. No judgement. Maybe you just want to try it once before committing. So, what can you use instead that will get you the best approximation?
Some people use a dutch oven, which is less than ideal, because you end up steaming your rice more than anything, and you won't get the crispy caramelization that's everyone's favorite part. Instead, I recommend using a wide, shallow cast iron skillet. Just make sure you don't stir the ingredients too much, or the crust won't form.
Glen Rix from UK on October 06, 2017:
Interesting. I occasionally make paella but don’t have a special pan and didn’t know about the crust. Perhaps that’s why I ought to use a paella pan. I’ve had good and bad paella in Spain. The worst was one made with chunks of rabbit on the bone.
Your pic of a 7ft pan prompted my memory of a very early morning when I was the sole tourist on a quiet Costa Brava beach. A group of men were starting the day with nips of brandy, after which they started to heat an enormous paella pan in preparation for a village festival. At the same time another group was by the seashore where two men in a rowing boat were spreading a large fishing net in the shallows. A crowd of local men and boys (no womenfolk) watched with deep interest and helped to drag the catch ashore,where they proceeded to inspect and comment upon it before carrying it in procession to the cooks. It was a fascinating event but I had to leave and never discovered what it was all about.