Why It Works
- Fatty cuts of pork like ribs and belly remain tender and juicy throughout cooking.
- Browning the meats and potatoes before assembling the rice for baking deepens flavor.
- Adding a measured amount of salt to the stock ensures the finished rice dish is properly seasoned throughout.
Paella is the word on everyone's lips when Spanish rice is the topic. But I'd argue that as deserving as paella is of its international fame, its sibling—arroz al horno—is the dish home cooks should devote more of their attention to. Born in Valencia, the rice-growing province that created paella, arroz al horno shares many of the great qualities of paella with a fraction of the challenges. Like paella, arroz al horno boasts deeply flavorful short-grain rice cooked in a single vessel with a customizable array of proteins, legumes, and vegetables. But unlike paella, arroz al horno does not need to be carefully tended over a live fire (or, if you're adapting it for the home kitchen, a stovetop burner), with all the associated risk of scorching and uneven cooking that comes with it.
Recipes for arroz al horno valenciano (that is, baked rice in the style of Valencia) vary quite a bit. Some of the simplest call for little more than rice, chickpeas, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and a few seasonings. When prepared this way, arroz al horno is an excellent side dish to accompany meats and vegetables. Other recipes, though, bulk up the ingredient list to also include meats like blood sausage and various cuts of pork, as well as slices of fried potatoes and even dried fruits like currants. Made this way, it's a filling one-pot meal that is far easier to throw together than its impressive appearance would suggest.
In both the simple and fully-loaded versions, water, or, better yet, a meat broth is used to cook the rice (or, if you're cooking chickpeas from dried, the flavorful bean-cooking liquid). And in both cases, a whole head of garlic that Valencians cutely call the "partridge" is plopped on right in the center to roast as the rice bakes below it.
Traditionally, arroz al horno is cooked and served in shallow earthenware cazuelas, though I have found a roughly 3.5-quart sautè pan or something similar also works very well. This type of vessel is another thing that differentiates arroz al horno from paella. In the case of paella, the signature pan is both very thin (for rapid shifts in heat as needed) and very shallow, producing a relatively slim bed of rice full of crispy bits thanks to the soccarrat that forms on the bottom. Arroz al horno, on the other hand, is cooked in a dish that allows a slightly deeper bed of rice that is more tender throughout, since most of the cooking happens in the oven and not over direct heat, and no soccarrat is formed.
The recipe here is of the more lavish variety, but what matters more here than the specific ingredients is the basic method, which, once understood, can be adapted to whichever ingredients you prefer. Go for a fully vegetarian approach with just chickpeas, tomatoes, garlic, and water (or bean-cooking liquid), or a meaty style of your choice using various sausages, meatballs, and cuts of pork, chicken, rabbit, or—dare I say without incurring a purist's wrath—seafood.
Making arroz al horno, in the broadest sense, goes something like this:
- Sear any ingredients you want to brown first, like meats and potato slices, to develop color and flavor.
- Add rice and spices/seasonings and toast in the oil. Toasting the rice reduces the thickening power of surface staches, ensuring the finished baked rice has tender, separate grains, not gummy ones. Adding spices like smoked paprika and saffron at this point allows them to infuse their fat-soluble flavors into the oil before any water or stock is added.
- Add liquid—preferably a high-quality homemade stock, as its flavor comes through fully here, or the bean-cooking liquid (if you're not using canned beans)—and bring to a simmer.
- While you're waiting for the liquid to come to a simmer, layer on the toppings, such as pieces of tomato, the fried potato slices, blood (or other) sausages, chickpeas, etc. Don't forget to pop that head of garlic right in the center.
- Bake the rice until all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender, then serve.
This is very much a recipe that, once you try it a couple times, can become a reliable weeknight staple open to improvisation, yet impressive enough to also be a great, low-effort option for entertaining a small group.
- 1 tablespoon (9g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt (for table salt, use half as much by volume or the same weight), plus more as needed
- 1 quart (946ml) homemade chicken stock or low-sodium broth (see notes)
- 1 pound (454g) pork ribs, separated into individual ribs and preferably cut into roughly 2-inch segments (see notes)
- 1/2 pound (227g) boneless, skinless pork belly, sliced 1/4 inch thick and cut into roughly 2-inch lengths
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- One large or two small Yukon Gold potatoes (about 8 ounces; 227g), peeled, ends trimmed, and sliced crosswise 1/4 inch thick
- 500g (about 17 1/2 ounces) Bomba or other short-grain Spanish rice (see note)
- 1 teaspoon sweet pimentón (smoked paprika)
- 1 small pinch saffron threads
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 1 bay leaf
- 4 links morcilla de cebolla (Spanish blood sausage with onions), optional
- One 15-ounce (425g) can drained chickpeas or 1 1/2 cups drained home-cooked chickpeas
- 1 whole head garlic, unpeeled
- 1 large tomato, cored and sliced crosswise into four 1/2-inch-thick slices
Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C). In a 1-quart measuring cup, stir the 1 tablespoon salt into the stock until dissolved; set aside. Season ribs and pork belly all over with salt and pepper; set aside.
In a 3 1/2-quart sauté pan, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add potato slices and cook, turning once, until deeply golden brown on both sides, about 3 minutes per side. Using a thin, slotted spatula, transfer potatoes to a plate and season with salt.
Immediately add pork ribs and belly to skillet and cook, stirring and turning occasionally, until browned all over, about 8 minutes.
Stir in rice, paprika, and saffron, and cook until rice is evenly coated in oil and very lightly toasted, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in chicken stock, then nestle in thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf. Make sure to scrape down sides of pan so that all grains of rice are submerged in the liquid.
While you wait for the liquid to come to a simmer, add chickpeas in an even layer on top of the rice (they will mostly be submerged). Place the head of garlic in the center of the pan and arrange the morcilla (if using), fried potato slices, and tomato slices in a ring around it. Season tomato lightly with salt.
As soon as liquid has come to a strong simmer, transfer to oven and bake until liquid is fully absorbed and rice is tender, about 30 minutes. Let rest uncovered for 5 minutes, then serve directly from the pan at the table.
Cutting the ribs into segments requires cleaving through fairly thick bone, which is often something better left for the butcher to do. The smaller segments are more manageable and make serving the rice easier, but don't worry if you can't do this, it will still work with full-length ribs. If you don't have a butcher to cut the ribs, we recommend using baby back ribs here, as they're naturally smaller. Otherwise, baby back or spare ribs will work if cut into smaller lengths.
Spanish short-grain rice is typically sold in 500g or 1kg bags, hence why this recipe calls for the rice in grams.