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Top Ten Tips for a Perfect Paella

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Paella is a traditional Spanish dish originating in Valencia over 800 years ago when the Moors introduced rice and saffron to Spain.  Originally paella was made from seasonal ingredients local to the region with a focus on fish and seafood, but its popularity as a dish has resulted in the development of many different variations including meat and vegetables.  

Paella is at its heart a rice dish, and whilst the other ingredients are important, they are there to add flavour to the rice not to take centrestage.

Our top ten tips for creating the perfect paella : 

  1.  Paella Pan : 

    The word paella actually derives from the latin word patella meaning pan, and the paella pan is the most important non-food ingredient to a perfect paella.  A paella pan should be wide, round, and shallow, the metal should be thin and never non-stick.  The heat should dissipate quickly through the pan, maximising the surface area of the rice to the bottom of the pan so that a flavoursome crust develops at the end.  An authentic paella pan should be slightly convex at the bottom, allowing the delicious juices to pool in the middle and soak into the rice.
     

  2.  Heat :

    Paella is traditionally cooked outside over an open fire.  The heat source should be big enough to heat the whole paella pan evenly at once.  If cooking indoors over a stove you might want to use two burners to get adequate coverage.  Temperature should be low to medium after the ingredients have been brought to the boil, with a quick blast of heat at the end for the crust.  Also you might want to rotate the pan to ensure even heat distribution, as you never want to stir a paella after the initial stir.  Paella is a dry rice dish (not creamy like risotto) and a finished paella should have a crust on the bottom, the rice should have absorbed all the moisture, and the paella should be pitted with small holes on the top.  If your stovetop just won't do the trick, then consider investing in a professional paella burner which will provide a perfect even heat across the base of the pan.
     

  3.  Meat and Vegetables :

    Like a great pizza, the meat and vegetables in a paella are secondary ingredients to combine and add flavour, never to dominate.  Use tasty meats like seafood, clams, bacon, chorizo, and chicken; cook them well in a good olive oil until they are brown, and use them sparingly.  Traditional Valencians would not hesitate to throw in snails and rabbit as well.   With the vegetables just use your imagination but similarly don’t overdo it.  Beans, artichokes, carrots, and peas are all wonderful additions; but feel free to try zucchini, eggplant, olives, a sprig of rosemary, and anything else that takes your fancy.
     

  4.  Sofrito :

    The sofrito is the sauté of aromatics ingredients cut into small pieces which provides the flavoursome base for the dish.  The sofrito should be cooked in the pan after the meats and seafood have been fried, and before the rice is added.  The exact ingredients used in a sofrito vary from region to region and from kitchen to kitchen, but tomato, onion, garlic, and capsicum would be a very traditional preparation.  The sofrito should be reduced until it is concentrated and thick and all the liquid is reduced.  When the sofrito is done cooking, the cooked meat ingredients and paprika are added back to the mix.
     

  5.  Rice :

    It is very important to use the right type of rice in a paella.  The best rice to use for paella is called bomba.  It is a short grained rice that can hold up to three times more liquid than regular rice, meaning three times more flavour in the paella.  If bomba rice is not available then Arborio is the next best option.  Arborio is usually used in a risotto, but the main difference between risotto and paella is that the rice in a paella is not fried before cooking.  The Valencians say that the rice should be cooked un ditet which means thickness of one finger.  Avoid long grained rice which doesn’t have the right texture and is less absorbent.
     

  6.  Stock :

    The flavoursome stock is added with, and cooks the rice.  Traditionalists will argue that the stock is as important as the rice, if not more.  A homemade stock is the best, but if you don’t have a homemade stock then a high quality low salt fresh stock is recommended.  If you are making a seafood paella boil the prawn shells or offcuts into the stock before straining into a jug and adding to the paella mix.
     

  7.  Socarrat :

    The socarrat is closely related to the rice and refers to the flavoursome caramelised crust that develops at the bottom of the paella pan.  The socarrat is the prize of paella, regarded almost sacrilegiously by devoted paella lovers, and is reserved for the most important guests.  The key to a socarrat is not to stir the rice after it has been added.  The perfect socarrat is created right at the end by turning up the heat to toast the rice at the bottom of the paella pan - just enough to form a delicate crust but stopping short of burning the rice.  A perfect paella pan helps tremendously in controlling the heat in this important final stage.
     

  8.  Saffron :

    A paella is not a paella without saffron.  Saffron provides the vibrant colour of the paella and is the secret ingredient which knits all of the flavours together bringing the paella to life.   Spanish saffron is typically a little more moist than Persian saffron, so Spanish saffron should be toasted first either in a dry pan or in some foil before being added to 2 tablespoons of hot water to infuse.   The saffron needs to infuse into the hot water for at least 15 minutes before being added to the paella just after the rice and vegetables, so you will need to plan ahead for this.
     

  9.  The Finish :

    Finishing off a paella is an art form, and different paella maestro’s will each have their own variation of it.  The key is to watch the rice.  Cook the paella on a low temperature after the initial boil for around 15 minutes, and wait for the rice to be plump and almost but not quite dry.  Some paella chefs cover in foil others don’t, the foil will tend to give a softer rice at the expense of texture in the paella.  Give the paella a blast of heat for the last few minutes to finish off the socarrat, and then remove from the heat and cover with a teatowel for 5-10 minutes to let your paella settle.  This will ensure that it doesn’t dry out as it continues to cook once removed from the heat.
     

  10.  Serve from the pan :

    A traditional paella is served straight from the pan, and it is a great offence in Valencian circles to offer paella to your guests on a plate.  Friends and family sit around the table with the paella pan taking centre stage, and share the delicious paella.  A serving wedge is sufficient for guests to lift out the paella by its delicious socarrat.  Serve with a simple light salad on the side, and keep cut lemon or lime on hand for each guest to squeeze over his or her portion. 

Paella is a wonderful meal, it is fun to cook especially with the kids, and it makes for a unique and social alternative to the Aussie Barbecue.  Everyone in the family can join in the cooking, and your family and guests will never forget the experience.  They will want to cook paella again and again, and with a bit of practice you will become the in house paella maestro !

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