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What's so Special About Spanish Paella Rice?

Lena is a foodie and home cook from the SF Bay Area with a passion for Spanish flavors and traditional cooking with a modern touch.

Spanish paella rice

Spanish paella rice

What Rice to Use In Paella

Paella is a rice dish, so your choice of rice can make or break the dish. Pick the wrong variety, and you can end up with risotto (at best) or, at worst, a sticky inedible mass. But for this Spanish specialty, you want the individual grains of rice to remain separate and distinct, so they need to be able to soak up a lot of moisture without losing their integrity.

There is a general consensus that the best rice for paella is Bomba, a short-grain variety primarily cultivated on the Eastern coast of Spain. It can absorb up to one and a half times as much liquid as other kinds without turning into mush. It is sometimes called "Valencia rice" because it is so closely identified with the region's cuisine.

You may also have heard that you should use "Calasparra rice." Usually, the people who say that actually do mean bomba rice; Calasparra is a region that grows a lot of it. But they also cultivate other kinds like Ballila X Sollana, so read the label carefully.

Where Is Bomba Rice From?

Where to Buy Paella Rice

You can shop for Bomba rice online or look for it in your local specialty store. Here in the Bay Area, I buy it at The Spanish Table, which is conveniently right down the street from my favorite Berkeley restaurant, but depending on where you live, you may not be able to find it locally. Look for it at Whole Foods if you have one nearby or at Sur La Table.

High-quality rice comes in a cloth bag. Do not buy it if it is completely sealed in plastic because the grain needs to breathe to stay in peak form.

Authentic paella rice is on the expensive side, as ingredients go, but it's generally agreed to be worth it if you can afford to splurge. Otherwise, you can use one of the more budget-friendly alternatives to the "top-shelf" variety listed below.

What to Substitute for Bomba Rice

If Bomba is too expensive or simply unavailable where you live, there are other Spanish rices you can use instead. I mentioned Balilla earlier, but it is a little prone to stickiness, which makes it harder for the home paella cook to get that perfect consistency.

Senia and Bahia have a higher yield and are, therefore, much less expensive, but they are not usually easy to find in the United States. They tend to be creamier but are well-accepted as an authentic substitute if you can get your hands on them. Recently a new variety called Albufera (a cross between Bomba and Senia) has been gaining popularity, with the creaminess of Bahia and senia, but the ability to retain its core structure makes bomba ideal for this particular dish. If you're living in Europe and can easily find them, reach for these options first.

If you cannot find Spanish rice at all, do not despair. Try Italian Arborio rice, which also has a short grain and can take on plenty of liquid before it falls apart. Calrose (developed in the 1940s by UC Davis's Rice Experiment Station) is now readily available in grocery stores around the USA, so you should be able to find that if all else fails.

Another surprising substitute is sushi rice, which is usually quite sticky when cooked. But the executive chef at Camino restaurant in Oakland has figured out a process to make it more suitable for paella. Chef Russell Moore described the process to the Mercury News, but be warned: it's a pretty labor-intensive alternative. I've never tried it, personally, but if you do, please let me know how it turns out!

Paella rice going into the pan

Paella rice going into the pan

How to Cook Paella Rice

Making this dish at home can seem pretty intimidating at first, but with a little self-restraint, you'll be cooking it like a pro. The key to a perfect paella is the crusty bottom, which you will destroy with too much stirring. Once you have cooked the sofrito and you are ready to add the rice, give it one good stir (always with a wooden utensil!), distribute everything in a thin, even layer, and then leave it alone. It may defy your natural instincts not to mix the ingredients periodically but resist the urge at all costs. If you succumb, you will destroy the beautiful soccarat, and the dish is no longer what you set out to make; it's "arroz con cosas" (or "rice with things," a derogatory term for an inauthentic paella).

Another important factor in conquering this dish is the cooking vessel. It is an initial investment, but if you plan to make it more than once, I really recommend buying a paellera. It has been particularly designed for the task, and while you can substitute a large skillet, I never get exactly the same results without it. (There are plenty of other things to cook in a paella pan if you're worried about that.)

With the right rice, the right pan, and a little patience, you can make a restaurant-quality dish at home!

© 2017 Lena Durante