"Just a little longer, I want to get a really good socarrat for the photos." I said those words a little too confidently, and repeated them a few too many times, as my test batches of paella finished cooking over smoldering coals on an outdoor grill. I was aiming for that famed copper-colored crust of rice on the bottom of the broad paella pan, and I was sure I could nail it. Except I didn't. I burned it. And then I burned it again.
There are many things to know about paella, but one of the most important is this: Don't burn your paella in search of the ultimate socarrat. The socarrat is something you learn to do over time, as you master your own setup—the charcoal or wood you're using, the grill you're working on, the specific paella recipe you're making. It's not something you can casually pull off just because you think you know your way around a live fire. (That's a side-eye at myself, in case it's not clear.)
A few weeks later I was standing by the paella makers at Mercado Little Spain, the New York City food court that is chef José Andrés's paean to Spanish gastronomy. They're not just making paella at Mercado Little Spain, they're doing it as close to a traditional al fresco Valencian paella feast as could ever be possible in New York. Despite being in an indoor concourse on the lower level of the new Hudson Yards development, Andrés's team is cooking huge pans of paella over roaring wood fires, all of it set up in a large rectangular fireproof box that looks vaguely like a shuffleboard court, if shuffleboard involved pushing around flaming strips of kindling instead of a bunch of plastic disks.
The setup is important because it allows them to do things I couldn't do as easily on the kettle grill—namely, constantly manage the fire throughout the cooking process. In their traditional setup, the pans are positioned on large iron stands, and the fire is built beneath them. The cooks use thin strips of firewood, which light quickly and burn fast.
In a matter of minutes, they can make a fire so energetic the flames shoot up above the pans, then reduce it to smoldering embers just moments later. Using a spade, they can push those embers out from under the pan to prevent the rice from burning as the paella finishes cooking, then sweep them back under for the last 30 seconds of cooking for one final boost of heat and, hopefully, a good socarrat.
Using a kettle grill makes managing the fire harder, since you can't tinker with it once the paella pan is set down on the grill grate. Any adjustments to the fire would require lifting the paella pan and removing the grate, then putting it all back before continuing. It's not something you want to do with a wide, shallow pan full of boiling liquid and rice. This means you're more likely to choose charcoal as your fuel, which burns longer and requires less intervention, but also doesn't die down as quickly the way you'd ideally want.
The more sustained heat of charcoal, in turn, needs to be managed in other ways. If your charcoal is still too hot as the rice absorbs the last of the liquid, you have to reduce the heat before anything scorches. Since you can't push the coals out from under the pan, you need to lift the pan higher, moving it farther from the heat source. Wadded up tinfoil works for a short lift, while bricks work to gain even more height.
It takes some practice to figure out how to get the heat management right, and even a pro like me can mess it up by trying to push the paella too aggressively towards a crunchy brown crust on the bottom. Even the experienced cooks at Mercado Little Spain, who've been cooking paellas up the wazoo every day since the market opened several months ago, say they don't nail it every single time—and they've got their method so dialed in they can set a 17-minute timer when the liquid starts boiling and take a perfectly done paella off the coals the instant the buzzer sounds.
But maybe we need to back up. Why are we cooking paella over a grill or live fire in the first place, aside from the fact that it's traditional?
Why Cook Paella on a Grill?
Because of how wide a large paella pan is, there's really no way to make paella for a crowd other than over a live fire or on a grill. A stovetop burner is too small for a large paella pan, and would create hot and cold spots that would lead to uneven cooking, with soupy rice in some areas and overcooked sections in others. You can use the stovetop for smaller paella pans—around a foot or so in diameter—but not the large ones meant for a feast. And that's really when paella is most fun anyway.
A live fire or bed of charcoals gives us the broad, even expanse of heat that will ensure every inch of the paella pan is being heated sufficiently. If you have a grill or other setup that allows side-access to the fire the way the traditional iron stands do, you can more easily emulate that classic paella cooking method, with a wood fire that you manage continuously. If you have a kettle grill, which is how I tested my recipes, you have to do what I suggested above—use charcoal and play with the pan's distance from the coals to control temperature.
As hard as it is to get a good socarrat, it's important to remember that that's not the defining feature of a good paella, though it is very desirable. Chef Nico Lopez of Mercado Little Spain said it to me plainly, "I prefer a paella perfectly cooked without a socarrat than a burned one." So, take heart: You can make a great paella at home on a grill with or without the socarrat. If you get the socarrat, that's just gravy.
What is Paella and What Makes a Good One?
Paella is known around the world as one of Spain's most iconic dishes, but the most traditional version, paella Valenciana, is a rarity outside of the region where it's from. Made from meats like chicken and rabbit, sometimes snails, and a narrow set of vegetables—broad green beans similar to Romano beans, plump fresh white beans called garrofó, tomatoes, sometimes artichoke hearts—plus seasonings like saffron, and, of course, the rice itself. The liquid used to cook the rice is just water, not stock., and the secret to its flavor is to deeply brown all the ingredients well before adding the water and rice.
They make a true paella Valenciana at Mercado Little Spain, and Chef Lopez explained to me that the secret to its flavor is to deeply brown all the ingredients before adding the water and rice. This browning, described as la marca in Spain, is so important to the dish because it effectively helps create a flavorful broth right in the pan.
There are plenty of other paella variants today: vegetable paellas, seafood paellas, meaty paellas, and, of course, the mixed seafood-and-meat paella that is perhaps the most famous in the rest of the world but makes folks in Valencia gag.
All paellas have a few things in common:
- First, they use highly absorbent short-grain rice. You're most likely to find the varieties called Bomba and Calasparra when shopping for paella rice.
- Second, the rice grains, when cooked, should remain separate. Unlike in a risotto, with its creamy, starchy sauce, paella rice should be suelto: loose, not clumpy, and with each grain very lightly coated in fat.
- Finally, paella should also never be made in a deep dish or pot; it's not a big pot of rice like jambalaya, but instead it's rice that's cooked in a thin, broad layer. According to Chef Lopez, that layer of rice should ideally be no more than a finger's width deep, though the reality of trying to serve a generous amount out of a single paella pan sometimes necessitates going a little thicker. Make it too deep, though, and the rice below the surface will steam, clump, and lose that suelto texture you're seeking.
The technique for making paella is pretty similar from one version to another. I've developed two recipes for paella (linked at the top and bottom of the page), each scaled to a 17-inch paella pan that will fit on a standard Weber kettle grill and feed about eight people.
One of my recipes is for a meat-only paella, chock full of chicken and pork. The other is for—blasphemy!!!—the seafood-and-meat paella mixta that proud Spaniards will denounce but that, we all know, lots of people love. I mean, it is delicious, despite the dictates of tradition. Even worse, I've included chorizo in my paella mixta, another major paella no-no (although at least one Spanish food writer has argued that chorizo was once an acceptable paella ingredient).
What's most important here aren't the specific recipes and ingredients, but the technique. Once you understand it, you can toss tomatoes at my head and kick my chorizo-studded, meat-and-seafood-mingling paella out the door and make whatever kind you want.
How to Make Paella on the Grill: Step by Step
This is a rough sketch of how various paella recipes work. There are, of course, exceptions to this generalized process; one might choose to do certain steps differently depending on the paella they're making and the exact results they want. Mostly, though, this is how it works.
Step 1: Sear Meats
If your paella pan is new, you'll need to prep it first following the manufacturer's instructions (they often come with a protective coating that needs to be boiled off), and then the pan should be lightly oiled all over to keep the steel from rusting.
Build your fire, getting the coals very hot, spread them out, and set the paella pan on top. (If you're using a more traditional setup, you can build the fire directly under the pan.) Add oil, push it around the pan with a long metal spatula, then add your pieces of meat. You want the fire very hot at this point so that the meat can sear on both sides very well.
At Mercado Little Spain they used pieces of chicken and rabbit that had been chopped into smaller parts, but since that's hard to do at home without a cleaver, my recipes here leave the meat whole.
Any dark meat like chicken legs and rabbit can stay in the paella pan for the duration of the cooking process. If you use any leaner meat that will dry out with long cooking, like medallions of pork tenderloin, you'll want to remove them from the pan after browning and return them later just to warm them through.
Step 2: Add Vegetables, Spices, Sofrito, and/or Tomato
Once the meat is very well browned, you'll want to add most of your vegetable matter. Every paella recipe is different in terms of what it might call for here. In the official Valencian version, you'll likely see the beans go in at this point, along with tomato purée and some saffron. Other recipe might introduce a sofrito at this point—a mixture of minced aromatic vegetables that have been cooked down slowly until golden brown and sweet—or a pinch of pimentón (Spanish paprika). All of it should get cooked until even more browned; just make sure to move it around with your spatula so nothing burns.
The only vegetables you might want to consider holding off cooking until the end of this step, skipping the aggressive browning part, are delicate ones that might turn to mush with such long cooking. Artichoke hearts, for instance, or beans that have already been par-cooked, might be better off being held back a little.
Step 3: Add Stock or Water
Now it's time to add your liquid. Ratios of water to rice are hard to generalize about, since the pan size, rice type, other ingredients (and how wet they are), heat of the fire, and other factors can influence how much water the rice will need. Plus, there's your personal taste to consider: How well done do you want the rice grains to be? I'd advise aiming for a nice al dente bite, but that's just me.
Most paella rice takes roughly three times its volume in liquid to hydrate fully and cook properly, though some chefs and recipes may add more or less depending on the above factors.
One thing to keep in mind is the stock itself. While it may seem like a more flavorful stock will lead to a more flavorful paella, you do need to exercise caution here. The more rich the stock is, the more packed with proteins it will be, and the more it will contribute to browning as the rice dries out. A very rich stock can raise the chances that your paella burns on the bottom before it's done. Chef Lopez confirmed this when he told me that a stock with too much protein can burn the paella even if you've otherwise cooked it perfectly.
Instead of a rich stock, opt for a lighter meat or seafood broth, or a vegetable stock, or even water. If you've browned everything else well to build up those layers of flavor, using water won't lead to a bland paella.
Step 4: Add Rice
Now sprinkle the rice in, distributing it all over the pan. If any rice lands on top of the pieces of meat, make sure to knock it off into the liquid. Unlike risotto, where lots of stirring helps build up that starchy, creamy sauce, a paella requires little stirring. Right when you add the rice, you can give it all a quick and gentle stir just to make sure the rice is evenly distributed throughout the pan. Then stop touching it.
Step 5: Boil
Let the entire pan come to a boil. Once it hits a full boil, the bubbling surface will look like a thousand shiny fish eyes staring up at you. At this point, you're looking at a cooking time of a little more than 15 minutes until the paella is done.
Step 6: Add Remaining Ingredients
If you're making a seafood paella, right when the liquid comes to a boil is a good time to nestle clams and mussels into it, giving them enough time to heat through and open. You may need to flip them partway through cooking so the heat can penetrate into the shells from both sides. Shrimp can go on a few minutes later, though you want to make sure you've left enough time for them to cook through too. Any meats that you set off to the side can also go back into the pan to heat through now.
Step 7: Add More Liquid if Necessary
When you get your paella setup and recipe totally figured out, you can add all the water at once, then the rice, and then...that's it. But when you're still tinkering with the finer points of the process, you may decide you need more liquid to allow the rice to reach the desired doneness. That's okay, just gently pour hot liquid or broth (hot because you don't want to halt the boil) into the pan in small increments until the rice is approaching its final texture.
Step 8: Reduce Heat and Cook Until Al Dente
Midway through the boil, you'll want to start to draw down the heat. Depending on the strength of your fire at this point, you may not need to do anything. If it's still quite hot, now is the time to prop the paella higher up to distance it from the heat source. Wadded-up foil will lift the pan slightly, while three or four bricks will lift it even higher. There's no easy way to tell you what to do since it depends on too many variables specific to each setup, but overall, when in doubt, it's better to err on the side of less heat. I learned this lesson the hard way.
To determine doneness, taste a few grains of rice. They should be tender but still have some firmness in the very center. You don't want to disturb the paella too much, but it's okay to take a spoon and dig into a small spot here or there just to see what's happening on the bottom. It'll make the paella look a little less perfect on top, even after smoothing out the evidence of your probe, but it's worth it if you're unsure. With practice, you'll eventually develop the skills to reading the progress of the paella without digging into it.
Step 9: Flash It
Once the rice has absorbed most of the liquid, it's nearly done. If you're after that elusive socarrat, you may want to give the paella one final 30-second blast of higher heat before taking it off the fire. If you think it's maybe already browning and crisping on the bottom, or if you're unsure, just skip this. Like I said, a good paella doesn't have to have the socarrat while a burned paella is always bad. Whatever you do, don't leave the pan in a low-liquid state over the high heat for long. It may seem like it needs more time, but you may be surprised to find how quickly it burned.
Step 10: Rest
Now give the paella a few minutes to rest. The rice will absorb any remaining moisture and everything will settle and cool down.
Now it's time to eat. The most fun way to serve paella is by setting the pan down on a communal table and letting everyone dig in. Whether you offer serving plates or just let everyone eat straight from the pan is up to you. As long as your rice is nicely cooked, I won't judge.