Few dishes can claim to be the total package of filling, healthy, delicious and versatile—not to mention iconic. As a cultural staple beloved all over the world, paella has managed to do just that.

This Spanish rice dish goes back centuries and continually evolves to appeal to modern tastes and regional specialties. Whether you’re looking for a crowd pleaser or a new challenge, a carnivore’s delight or an easy vegan dinner, paella is the answer you’ve been waiting for. 

Close up of a bowl of finished paella with rice, vegetables and seafood, topped with a sprinkle of fresh parsley
Paella ranges in consistency from dry to wet, and may contain meat, seafood or a combination of the two. 
Still from Skillshare Class Cooking from the Pantry: Rice by Almond Tree Kitchen

What is Paella?

Considered quintessential Spanish cuisine, paella is a rice dish with meat, vegetables and seasonings. You make it in quantities to feed two or more people in a large, stovetop pan and serve it directly from that vessel. 

What is so special about paella? Depends who you ask, but the meal’s been around for centuries and is woven into the hearts and culture of the Spanish people. You can find it in upscale restaurants and casual family gatherings, completely at home in either.  

What makes a paella a paella? Again, it depends who you ask. Purists may say it’s the Valencian rice or types of meat you include (or omit). Tourists might take it to mean any combination of rice, meat and vegetables. Others may say it’s the kind of pan or how the rice sticks at the bottom.  

Origins of Paella

The concept of cooking rice with meat and vegetables is likely older than any record can confirm. Still, the dish we know as paella comes with a widely accepted history.

Paella originated in Valencia, a port town on the central east coast of Spain with the perfect climate for growing rice. As a hearty meal for those working in the fields, paella was made in large pans and brought straight to the table for everyone to dig in.

In fact, the word “paella” doesn’t actually describe the food at all, but rather what it’s cooked in–a wide, shallow pan used over an outdoor fire. You may also hear the pan called a “paellera.” 

Over time, people swapped traditional meats for sausage and seafood, or cut out animal protein completely for a vegetarian version. To the world outside Spain, paella might simply indicate any Spanish rice dish, though Spaniards themselves differentiate between it and other variations.   

Traditional Spanish Paella

In true Valencian paella, you’ll find no seafood, no long grain rice and probably not a lot of brightly colored vegetables. 

So what does traditional paella have in it? To spot the most authentic versions, look for:

  • Short or medium grain rice, such as Valencian Bomba
  • Cooked rice kernels that remain firm and separate
  • Saffron to scent the rice and give it a yellow color
  • Rabbit, chicken and snails
  • Green beans and large, white lima beans (called garrofón or butter beans)
  • Soccarat (crispy toasted rice at the bottom of the pan)

The traditional paella recipe calls for everything to be cooked together in a wide, shallow pan. Don’t cover the pan or over-stir, as being somewhat hands-off is how you get what some consider the best part of paella rice: soccarat. This is the rice “crust” that forms at the bottom of the pan.   

Speaking of paella rice, it’s important that it’s not long grain. Valencian rice is relatively short and fat, which is perfect for absorbing lots of liquid and flavor without getting mushy. 

Because proper paella is never made ahead of time and feeds multiple people, it will likely take at least 30 minutes to prepare. 

Large and shallow traditional paella pan full of cooked yellowish rice, green beans, lima beans and peppers
Traditional paella pans are large and shallow, and perfectly show off that delicious rice topped with colorful veggies. 
Photo by PeterKraayvanger on Pixabay

Seafood Paella (Paella de Marisco)

Although traditional Valencian paella contains no seafood, seafood paella, or paella de marisco, is now a common variation of the dish. Enthusiasts also love paella mixta, which uses both seafood and land meats.  

Seafood paella focuses on rice as much as traditional paella does, and trades in rabbit, chicken, and snails for:

  • Shrimp or prawns
  • Squid or cuttlefish
  • Clams or mussels
  • Crayfish or even lobster
  • Firm white fish such as halibut, monkfish or sea bass

Instead of, say, chicken stock, you can make seafood paella with fish stock. As a creative twist, try using air fryer cooked fish!  

Paella Ingredients

Just about any paella recipe can be broken down into rice, protein, vegetables and seasoning. You may end up emphasizing one ingredient type over another as you learn which varieties you prefer.  

What is the secret ingredient in paella? Depending on the kind you make, you might find it to be the delicate ribbons of saffron cooked with aromatics. Maybe it’s just the right blend of chicken, sausage and seafood. Then again, you may swear by the paella pan you use for achieving the perfect socarrat.   

Short and Medium Grain Rice

No matter what type of paella you make, or what else is vital to it turning out properly, rice is non-negotiable. Without rice, you don’t have paella.  

Rice grows in short, medium and long grains. Long grain rice is skinny and absorbs less liquid than the shorter, fatter pieces of short and medium grain rice. Valencia, where paella originated, grows short and medium grain rice in its marshlands. 

When buying rice for paella, look for Bomba, Senia or Bahia rice. It might even simply be labeled “Valencian rice.” The rounder shape means the grains will absorb more flavor and liquid, giving your paella a distinct deliciousness. 

Seasonings: Herbs, Spices and Aromatics

As great as rice is, it doesn’t have a ton of flavor on its own. To spice things up, most seasoning for paella incorporates some blend of herbs, spices and vegetables as aromatics:  

  • Saffron
  • Parsley
  • Lemon
  • Salt and pepper
  • Garlic
  • Bay leaf
  • Oregano 
  • Turmeric
  • Onion 
  • Tomato
  • Chili peppers

Of these, saffron is certainly one of the most traditional paella seasonings, though it can be expensive and difficult to find. Soaking it in water before adding it to the pot releases saffron’s aroma and color.  

Vegetables, a Little or a Lot 

Green beans and lima beans are the most traditional vegetables you can add to paella. Other commonly included veggies (some of which serve as aromatics) include:

  • Peas
  • Onions
  • Tomatoes
  • Bell peppers

Because paella was originally developed as a hearty meal for field workers, the focus was on carbs and protein rather than vegetables. Today, the wide range of paella varieties use all sorts of veggies, some even leaving out the meat altogether. 

Pack In the Protein 

You’ve already learned about the differences between traditional Valencian paella and seafood paella, but what are the reasons behind those meat choices?

Early versions of the dish included meat from readily available animals. For field workers, snails and sometimes rabbits were far more accessible than seafood. 

Today, however, paella is a sought after meal not only in Spain, but all over the world. Cooks use everything from calamari to beef to Chorizo, often mixing land meats with seafood. 

How to Make Paella

One of the best things about paella is that it’s not terribly complicated to make. Try it out using a seafood paella recipe from Almond Tree Kitchen. This recipe is not traditional Valencian and won’t have that layer of crispy rice socarrat at the bottom, but it will definitely be delicious. 

Aerial view of prepared paella ingredients, including rice, peppers, saffron, paprika, lemon, tomatoes, white fish, prawns, onion, celery, fennel, garlic, bay leaves, oregano, salt, pepper, oil and chicken stock
Most paella ingredients are easy to find and affordable, not to mention pretty to look at. Soak saffron first to release its color and aroma. 
Still from Skillshare Class Cooking from the Pantry: Rice by Almond Tree Kitchen

Ingredients:

  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 3.5 oz (100 g) celery, finely diced
  • 2 oz (55 g) fennel, finely diced
  • 5 oz (150 g) onion, finely chopped
  • 3 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 7 oz (200 g) red or green peppers, seeds removed and medium chopped
  • 7 oz (200 g) short grain rice, uncooked
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 9 oz (250 g) firm white fish cut into chunks
  • 3 cups (70 ml) chicken or fish stock
  • 2 tbsp dried oregano
  • Pinch of saffron threads
  • 4 tbsp pimenton (paprika)
  • 15 oz (400 g) tomatoes, diced with juices retained
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 oz (115 g) large prawns, cooked and cleaned
  • 1 large lemon
  • Fresh chopped parsley (for garnish)

Directions:

  1. Heat the olive oil over high heat in a wide, shallow pan.
  2. When the oil is hot, sautee the celery, fennel, onion, garlic and peppers for one minute.
  3. Add the rice and bay leaves and cook for two minutes, until the rice is translucent.
  4. Add the white fish and the stock.
  5. Add the oregano, saffron and pimenton.
  6. Add the tomatoes and return to a boil.
  7. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 12 minutes.
  8. After 12 minutes, season with salt and pepper to taste and stir.
  9. Add the cooked prawns. 
  10. Cover and let sit for 5 minutes.
  11. Serve directly from the pan with lemon wedges and parsley garnish. 

Perfecting Your Paella 

Nothing is as iconic as paella made over an outdoor fire with Valencian rice, especially when it has a perfect socarrat at the bottom of a well loved Spanish paellera. 

Still, you can make a delicious paella right in your own home, even if the ingredients aren’t exactly what the field workers used in centuries passed. Keep your rice short grained and your aromatics abundant, and you’re sure to please even the toughest crowd.   

Written By
Katie Mitchell

Katie Mitchell

Katie lives in Michigan with her husband, kids and pets. She enjoys cooking, travel and live music.

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