DIY Food

How to Make Paella Without a Recipe

September 30, 2013

Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: Paella gets demystified so you can channel your inner Spanish pitmaster, without a recipe.

Paella from Food52

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I love paella, that iconic Spanish dish named after the pan in which it is cooked. The technique can be reduced to a few simple steps, all of which are important. You will need short grain rice (called "Bomba" in Spain, but Arborio makes a good subsitute), saffron, stock, aromatics, and add-ins of your choosing. Unlike risotto, the simmering stock is added all at once and needs only one quick stir before finishing. This is what allows soccarat, a crispy, just-shy-of-burnt and oh-so-delicious crust to form at the bottom.

In the traditional paella Valenciana it’s typical to include snails. If Thumper has been nibbling on your lettuces and flowers you can throw him in as well. The point, though, is that it’s easy to be inventive with paella as you master the basics. Try sausage, chicken, rabbit, shrimp, shellfish, or a combination thereof. That paella pan is your canvas and you can go all Picasso if you want to.

Paella is always best cooked outside over lump wood charcoal, like oak. Now is not the time for charcoal briquettes. In Spain they frequently use a tri-legged gas apparatus, which makes it certifiably okay to cook on propane. Alternatively, you can cook the paella on a gas cook top. You can also cook a paella in the oven, but I’m not a big fan of that method because you'll miss out on those crisped soccarat bits on the bottom.

How to Make Paella Without a Recipe

1. Prep all of your ingredients, since paella moves quickly once it gets going. If using dried peppers (I like Nora, Ancho, or Cascobel), rehydrate them in boiling water for an hour or two, and then seed and destem them. If using red bell peppers, roast them over your gas range, then cut them into strips. Chop up half an onion and sliver a couple garlic cloves. Open up any cans or jars, if you're using any. If any of your vegetables need blanching, now is the time. If you're including chicken or rabbit, gently brown it in a pan and set aside. Bring 3 cups of stock to a simmer, add a generous pinch of saffron, and leave the stock simmering.

Paella from Food52


2. Start your fire. When it's hot, place your paella pan over it and heat up a glug of olive oil. Add your chopped onion and slivered garlic. Cook until onion starts to soften. In Spain, they like their garlic a little bit more brown and bitter than in America. Add salt to taste.

Paella from Food52


3. Add a 1/2 cup of short-grained rice (ideally Bomba, but Arborio works too) and stir a few times until it becomes translucent. Add your meats now too -- chicken or rabbit, diced Spanish-style chorizo, helix snails.

Paella from Food52


4. Here's where your paella departs from the risotto model. Add all 3 cups of the warm stock, and a generous sprinkling of salt. Stir no more than once.

Paella from Food52


5. Top with peas; other vegetables of your choosing (haricots, diced tomatoes, or very tiny Brussels sprouts); clams, mussels or other mollusks (use the smallest, tightest ones you can find); shrimp of any size, peeled and deveined (and defrosted, if frozen), etc. Make it look pretty. If you're using shelled mollusks, cover the pan with a lid or foil.

Paella from Food52


6. Resist the temptation to stir! The actual cooking process takes about 25 minutes or so on a steady flame. By this time, your mollusks should be opened up and singing opera to you. Discard any recidivists whose shells haven't opened up.

Paella from Food52

If you've done this correctly, you should have that slightly burnt bottom crust -- lucky you! Serve immediately.

How about a few more classic Spanish dishes to complete the menu? Try these:

White Gazpacho with Cantaloupe
Herb-Infused Clara con Limón
Galician Almond Cake

Photos by Sarah Shatz

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Baldomero Ruiz
    Baldomero Ruiz
  • gustus
  • Kerryloves2travel
  • AntoniaJames
  • HalfPint
Standup commis flâneur, and food historian. Pierino's background is in Italian and Spanish cooking but of late he's focused on frozen desserts. He is now finishing his cookbook, MALAVIDA! Can it get worse? Yes, it can. Visit the Malavida Brass Knuckle cooking page at Facebook and your posts are welcome there.


Baldomero R. October 20, 2013
Sorry Pierino; but you have not coocked paella, you did "rice with things". It is absolutely forbbiden in paella to use onion and peas, Shrimps and chorizo? Are we insane?. I know it is very difficult to find some of the ingredients in USA, but you can replace for other similars. Here is a link to a recipe In some parts of Valencia the add snails and duck, it is allowed.
I do not pretend to be a paella purist; but if you call paella, the recipe is this.
pierino October 20, 2013
Baldomero thank you for your comment but paella is really at its most basic "rice with things". Rice was introduced during the Moorish occupation and flourished in the Valencia region.As to the picture, I didn't do that, that's editorial. But still I would use whole shrimp shell on in a paella. And I would go all surf and turf with snail and rabbit and alligator if I could find some.
Baldomero R. October 21, 2013
O.K., at the end, paella is "rice with things", but not all kind of things, only a short list of things, exactly "local things", from and close the area where was invented -rabbit, duck, chicken, artichokes, garrofó, bachoqueta, but not shrimps or peas- . The valencians are very demandings with this recipe, even they say that the better water to made it is from Valencia... Trust me, I live in Andalusia, south of Córdoba, and I shall never let me call paella to the rice with things I cook, here we call it "Perol cordobés", similar?, yes and no, we use onion (Valencians do not use it because they say that softens and cake the rice, and one of the commandment of the real and only paella recipe is: "you will never cake the rice"; for that reason they do not stir the rice in the paella, if you stir you break the grain and release the starch; and paella is not a rissotto), pork meat (ribs or leg), and, of course, chorizo... Anyway, I'm sure your dish is excellent, but, please, call it: "rice made in a paella" or "Paella my way". Have a good week
gustus October 8, 2013
It works! While visiting civilization this summer, I bought a paella pan at Sur La Table that didn't require a bank loan (and that eerily resembles the pan in your illustrations), and my one attempt at a a paella before tonight was a disaster. That time, I was cooking on an electric smooth top stove, the proportions of liquid to rice were way off, the stock was not pre-simmered, and there was no prohibition on stirring. (The author of the recipe shall remain nameless.) Tonight I used the grill and all of your directions. Voilà!
Kerryloves2travel September 30, 2013
I just took a Paella class from chef who lived & studied in Spain and only thing different was brown the meats 1st-chicken, rabbit. Also, add onion 1st, then later garlic-cooks at different times & burned garlic not so tasty.
Use good quality stock & saffron threads more depth of flavor than flowers. Your tip is right on : DO NOT STIR.
Perfect crowd pleasing 1 dish meal.
AntoniaJames September 30, 2013
Your writing is refreshingly original, so beautiful and clear. Thank you for another outstanding recipe. ;o)
AntoniaJames September 30, 2013
Oops, I mean another outstanding "article". It's not a recipe. In fact, it's an article specifically about not being a recipe. Long day, today. ;o)
pierino September 30, 2013
Thank you AJ. Paella is one of my favorite things to prepare for a crowd. It is forgiving if you look after it.
AntoniaJames September 30, 2013
I think it's high time I buy at least one of my sons (both of whom have lived in various parts of Spain, for extended periods) a paella pan, and for us to get this project underway next time they're both home. You've inspired me! ;o) P.S. Plus, you know I can never resist a trip over the Spanish Table. Speaking of which, my son who spent time in the Savoie last winter has developed quite a taste for stinky cheese.
HalfPint September 30, 2013
I've read a few recipes that are emphatic about not stirring the pan as the paella cooks, especially if you want that crusty bottom. I tried (or rather did not) that for my last paella, and sadly, no crispy soccarat (sp?). Any ideas on how to get that?
pierino September 30, 2013
To achieve the soccarat you must first, maintain a steady flame (that might involve adding more charcoal if you are using wood). The rice gets a quick stir in your soffrito (sofregit)it should begin to go translucent. That's where the comparison to risotto ends. SIMMERING stock is added all at once. I cook it uncovered up until the point I add the shelfish. If you don't have a lid that fits your pan you can cover it with foil until your bivalves open. This does not take long. If you are not using shellfish don't worry about covering. Keep an eye on the edges. Normally this process takes about 25 minutes. But recently I cooked a couple of really big wide ones with the assistance of a friend from Valencia. In that case it took about 40 minutes so be patient. It's okay to push the edges a bit with a wooden spatula, but that is absolutely correct---don't stir.
Brette W. September 30, 2013
This is awesome -- had no idea paella could be so simple!