Ask most people what they consider to be Spain’s national dish, and they will answer paella. Paella originated in the Valencian area, where rice growers were allowed to help themselves to some of the rice they were harvesting in order to to feed their families. They’d go off and hunt rabbits and ducks for meat, and the paella was born.
Near the coast, fishermen would put fish in their paella instead of meat. The seafood paella (Paella Marinara) most visitors to Spain are familiar with is a concoction dreamed up for the tourists. From its humble beginnings, paella is now regarded as a celebration meal in Spain, so every Spanish kitchen has at least one paella pan.
The choice of paella pans can be bewildering. You can buy pans in polished carbon steel, aluminium non stick, stainless steel, copper and enamelled steel. Paella pans have shallow, outward-sloping sides. This traditional shape means that the maximum amount of rice is in contact with the heat source, allowing relatively quick evaporation of the cooking liquid. While it’s possible to cook a paella in a regular frying pan, the results are much better in a traditional paella pan.
Enamelled steel pans are okay for beginning paella cooks, as they don’t need to be seasoned and heat conduction is good. However, with an enamelled pan, you won’t be able to develop the soccarat, which is the caramelised rice on the bottom of the pan. Paella afficcionados consider the soccarat essential to a good paella. Enamelled steel pans are not as hard wearing as carbon steel pans, so they will need to be replaced more often.
Copper pans look good, but are the most expensive option. Aluminium non stick pans are also expensive, and no self-respecting Spanish cook would dream of making a paella in a non stick pan. Stainless steel pans do not require seasoning, but will still produce the soccarat. The drawback is that stainless steel paella pans are much more expensive than the polished carbon steel pans found in most Spanish kitchens.
My attitude is ‘When in Rome (or Spain) do as the locals do,’ and I have 3 polished carbon steel paella pans in my kitchen. I have an 8″ (20cm) pan, which I use for making tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette) or to cook a side dish of rice for my husband and I. The 13″ (33cm) pan will take a paella for up to 4 people. Finally, there’s the 22″ (55cm) pan, which I use for 12 – 14 servings of paella for parties. This pan is also useful if I want to poach or fry a large number of eggs at the same time, if we have people around for Sunday brunch.
Spanish made polished carbon steel pans are easily recognisable by their red handles. These are treated with heat resistant paint, so they can be used on paella burners, on the hob, or in the oven. Polished carbon steel pans cost from as little as 2 or 3 euros on the markets, so they are very economical, but also hard wearing.
Before use, your paella pan should be seasoned. This will prevent the pan from rusting, and also build up a natural non stick layer, making the pan easier to clean. To season your pan, first wash in hot soapy water to remove the manufacturer’s protective coating. Dry with a soft cloth and, while the pan is still warm, rub the inside of the pan with a kitchen towel soaked in olive oil. After each use, and before you put the pan away, rub with olive oil. If you forget to do this and the pan develops rust spots, you can remove these with a scourer, but this will disturb the non stick layer on your paella pan, so get into the habit of washing and seasoning after each use.
With care, your paella pan should last for many years and provide your family with a variety of delicious paellas. Buen Provecho!