A good rule of thumb when preparing a dish, particularly the signature dish of a given country, as paella is for Spain, is that the shopping, prep, cooking, and cleanup should take significantly less time than it would take to physically travel to that country and back.
Unfortunately, that is not the case for some guides to preparing paella, many of which would have you spend a month studying rice before sending you to the kitchen store to buy a paella pan that costs roughly the same as a plane ticket.
Not this one, though. We think paella is something everyone should be able to enjoy. Here's a list of things not to worry about when making paella at home.
Don't Agonize About the Pan
When tackling paella, it's helpful to remember that this traditional peasant dish originated in Spanish fishing villages hundreds of years before kitchen stores existed, and there was no such thing as a paella pan. It was just prepared in a pan. Any wide, shallow skillet will work, so just use the widest, shallowest one you have. Moreover, paella was traditionally prepared over an open fire, not for the sake of being "traditional" but because an open fire was where you cooked food. A stove is also a wonderful place to cook paella (and so is the oven).
Don't Get Hung Up on Specific Ingredients
Because it's a dish whose purpose is to cook whatever fish, seafood and other ingredients that happened to be available right then, there is a great deal of leeway in the ingredients needed. In addition to rice, most paella will certainly include chicken, sausage, shrimp, clams and/or mussels, and it's not unusual to include ingredients like pork, squid, fish, eel, even rabbit and snails. But you'll obviously be following a recipe to make your paella, which will help you narrow down your ingredient list, but the point is if your recipe calls for clams and mussels and you have only one, or the other, or even neither, don't let that discourage you. Make your paella with what you have.
Don't Skip the Saffron
With that said, one ingredient that (other than the rice) is pretty close to indispensable for paella is the saffron. You might be tempted to skip it since it's such an obscure spice that you might not have any on hand, and it's used in such a minuscule quantity that it might seem unimportant. But the reason for using such a small amount is that saffron is incredibly potent, and the unique flavor and aroma it imparts (at turns floral, pungent and almost sweet) is not one you can duplicate with anything else. In addition to flavor, saffron also gives the rice the yellow hue that characterizes paella. And while you can substitute other spices for the sake of sheer color, there really is no replacing the distinctive flavor of saffron.
Don't Stress About the Rice
Like other iconic rice dishes, such as sushi (made with japonica rice), biryani (basmati rice) and risotto (arborio), paella too is defined by the type of rice it's traditionally made with. In this case, the rice is a variety native to Spain called bomba, characterized by an extremely short, nearly spherical grain that can nevertheless absorb above-average amounts of liquid as it cooks. You almost certainly will not find bomba rice on your supermarket shelves, but don't despair. The next best thing, called Calrose, is grown in California and is widely available. It too has a short grain and will soak up broth prodigiously. But if you can't find that, use any short-grained rice.
Don't Make Your Own Broth
Making your own broth or stock from scratch can take anywhere from one to eight hours and involve at least as many ingredients as the paella itself. And if you're undertaking a paella, especially if it's your first time, you've got enough going on just doing that without also having to make your own seafood stock. Instead, use store-bought. The options available at supermarkets these days are pretty good. And if you really want to make a superb paella, consider using a store-bought lobster stock. You're welcome.
Add The Ingredients in Their Proper Order
The challenge with a dish like paella is managing the various cooking times of its many components. The fact that it features both chicken and seafood is just one example, to say nothing of the rice, which needs to cook just long enough so that the last bit of liquid is absorbed at the exact moment it reaches perfect doneness. Again, let the recipe be your guide here, but resist the temptation to save time by dumping everything in the pot at once. You'll either end up with soup, undercooked chicken, overcooked shellfish, or all of the above.
This tip can be applied broadly across many (but by no means all) culinary activities, but is particularly true when it comes to cooking rice. Not only does stirring rice cause it to turn mushy, but with paella it also prevents the formation of a caramelized crust on the bottom of the pan, a keenly sought-after feature of paella that connoisseurs like. Bear in mind that this bottom crust (called soccarat) reaches its peak crispiness in the fleeting moments before it burns. There's a very fine line between soccarat and scorched, and if you're new to cooking paella, it's a line you might not want to straddle. Indeed, one of the more foolproof ways of cooking paella is to do it in the oven, where the heat comes from all sides, and not just underneath. Soccarat has no chance to form there but scorching is unlikely. In any event, follow your recipe.