I often wonder what could be more Spanish and utterly delicious than paella (pronounced pah:eh:YEH:rah), and I always struggle. No dish evokes the passion of its people and flavour of its culture more than an authentic Spanish paella cooked to a traditional paella recipe. And that’s what I’m about to share with you – the eight key steps on how to make paella. This easy paella recipe transforms simple ingredients into a Spanish paella that will become a firm favourite of yours.
Before I get started on how to make paella, a pinch of history. Paella has ancient roots that date right back to the 10th century when Moors in Muslim Spain first began cultivating rice. Valencians often made casseroles of rice, rabbit and spices for family and religious feasts, which is what led rice to becoming a staple food by the 15th century. Its modern incarnation more specifically originates from Valencia in the mid-19th century and today, it’s eaten by people of all walks of life, the length and breadth of Spain, and foodies the world-over.
The rice is vitally important and the best type of rice grain for cooking paellas is the short grain ‘Japonica’ variety. Within the denomination of Arroz de Valencia D.O. the most popular varieties are Senia, Bomba, and Albufera. The Senia variety absorbs more flavour during cooking, retains a creamy texture but it can overcook very quickly. Bomba, which is the most well-known paella rice variety and has documented references since 1913, is a more hardworking rice than Senia, allowing you to cook it for longer. Albufera sits the middle of both other varieties. There is also Calasparra which is grown in the area around the town of Calasparra in Murcia. Rice grown in the DO of Calasparra is called Calasparra rice. However, both Balilla X Sollana and Bomba varieties are cultivated there.
For me, paella is so popular, not only because of its wonderful taste and flavours, but also for its incredible versatility and ability to easily feed a large group or family. The base for every paella recipe is essentially the same – aromatics, rich tomato sauce, rice and stock – however, the base can be quickly and easily made utterly unique by building flavours with different meats, seafoods and vegetables. If you don’t already have a favourite Spanish paella recipe, you’ll find plenty of flavour inspiration on my paella recipes page.
Whether you’re following a traditional paella recipe like my seafood paella recipe that’s packed with tiger prawns, monkfish and fresh squid, or opting for an easier option like our chorizo and chicken paella recipe, there are eight easy steps that apply to nearly all of my recipes. Let’s get started on how to make paella!
The first step of any paella recipe is to fry any meat or seafood you plan on including in some good quality olive oil. Cook it in the same pan you plan on cooking the rice in and allow the ingredients to nicely caramelise, so they intensely flavour the base of the pan. Set aside the meat or seafood for later, then add a little more oil to the pan and lightly fry the paella seasoning of finely chopped garlic and sometimes onions. Be careful not to let it burn on the bottom, so stir it regularly.
Now it’s time to add the rice. How to cook Bomba paella rice is quite easy. Once added, simply gently stir the rice until it starts to turn translucent. Here’s an important tip – I always spread it evenly in the pan, that way each grain starts to cook at roughly the same speed. Incidentally, I’m always asked can you use paella rice for risottos and the answer is yes, in fact, Bomba rice is the perfect variety for both styles of dishes.
Start the sauce by frying smoked paprika dulce for just 30 seconds to avoid burning. Next add the flesh of a dried ñora pepper which has been pre-soaked in boiling water, followed by the tomato sofrito. Sofrito is a traditional Spanish sauce that forms the basis of any paella. Slowly add it to the pan, stir and enjoy the wonderful rich aromas it creates as it combines with the garlic and wonderfully smokey paprika. You can find my recipe for creating a proper authentic homemade tomato sofrito for paella here.
I love saffron. It’s an essential spice for a traditional paella recipe. To prepare it correctly, you need to toast and then pound the saffron to enable it to properly infuse with your paella mix. It’s what gives paella its vibrant golden colour. My saffron guide goes into more detail of how to prepare it.
The quality of the stock makes such a difference to a paella. The authenticity of my paella recipe really does rely on using a fresh stock because it adds so much wonderful flavour and depth to the rice as it soaks it up. Add the stock to the pan and then the saffron, stir and allow them to infuse. Creating a high-quality stock is easy. Here’s a handy tip – if making a seafood paella recipe, make my prawn stock in advance and then freeze it in an ice cube tray for later use. It freezes well and saves lots of valuable time.
When you know how to make paella, you’ll know that timing is everything. I always set the timer and let my paella cook to the ‘17-Minute Rule’. Firstly, pre-heat your oven to 150oC and then bring the dish to the boil on your hob and cook on a high heat for 5 minutes until the rice begins to rise to the surface.
You’re now just minutes away from the perfect Spanish paella. Stir it well, add the seafood or meat that you set aside earlier, then let it bake in the oven for a further 12 minutes. This gently simmers the rice in the stock and ensures it’s perfectly al dente.
The aromas will be so tempting when you open the oven, but you must use all your will-power to resist serving it immediately. Cover the pan in a cloth and let your paella to rest for 5 minutes. This gives all the wonderful flavours the chance to settle and the meat or seafood to become lovely and tender.
Once you’ve finished following the eight basic steps of my easy paella recipe, you’ll want to think about what to serve with your paella. It’s a flavourful and complete dish that is usually delicious just as it is, however, I like to simply garnish it with some lemon wedges to give it a slightly zesty final lift. Buen Provecho!
For seafood and white meat paellas, try our unoaked chardonnay from Bodegas Enate in Somontano. This rich and buttery white wine has bags of exotic fruits and honey that balance really well with the richness of the rice.
Meat paellas are wonderful with a red like Scandalo made from 100% Monastrell grapes from Alicante – the epicenter of paella making. This red has intensity and rich notes of red fruits with a good level of spice which works well with the spices and tomato sofrito used in paella cooking. Serve slightly chilled with our spiced duck and wild mushroom paella.