The best paella pan starts with the right choice of rice. You want the rice to absorb all the liquid without becoming mushy. And as traditional paella’s signature, you want the perfect socarrat.
Socarrat is the toasted crust at the bottom of the rice when it’s done. It’s such a vital part of the dish that you can’t have paella without it.
So, choosing the best rice for paella is just as crucial as cooking it. Rice options are limitless, from the color, where it’s grown, and how it tastes to the aroma and the size of the grains; there are enough rice varieties for all rice dishes. But because we’re making paella, you’ll need paella rice.
Related Article: How to Make Paella
What is Paella Rice?
Paella originated in Eastern Spain, specifically Valencia. So it’s no coincidence that the rice used in the dish is grown in Valencia. But what makes this rice unique?
- Size: Paella rice is short (like really short), almost round grain rice.
- Ability to absorb liquids: This type of rice can absorb liquids and expand up to three times its size. So, it will absorb flavors from the stock and juices from the seafood without becoming sticky.
- How it expands: Unlike long grain rice, paella rice expands crosswise (instead of along the length. It keeps its short size while swelling like an accordion.
Paella rice is easy to get in Spain, where it’s become the national dish. However, it’s pretty challenging to come by outside of Spain. Although increasingly more online and gourmet shops are starting to carry it, you may still need to jump some hurdles when trying to find paella rice here in the US.
The best and most traditional rice for paella is bomba rice. A few alternatives may work too.
Bomba Rice: The Authentic Choice
If you can get bomba rice, you’ll have the most integral part of the traditional Valencian paella. The other ingredients (aside from saffron) are relatively easy to find or can be substituted.
Bomba rice is a type of pearly white short grain rice that Spaniards use exclusively in making paella. Its ability to soak in flavors without bursting makes it the number one choice for paella even outside of Spain.
To get the best socarrat, you won’t wash the rice because you want that extra starch to settle at the bottom. Other rice varieties will become sticky if you don’t wash them before cooking. But bomba rice keeps its shape and allows the sticky starch to settle at the bottom of the pan. Its high amylose content ensures it does not stick together.
When buying bomba rice, make sure the packaging reads bomba rice, Valencia rice (or Arroz de Valencia), or paella rice. The image on the packaging can also help you know if the rice is short grain or not.
Bomba Rice is a bit pricey because of the time and intensity of care required to grow it. It also only grows in Eastern Spain, so it’s rare. But it’s worth your money if you’re going for the authentic Valencian paella.
Calasparra: A Viable Alternative
Calasparra is an excellent substitute for bomba rice. Its size, shape, color, and quality are almost identical to the former, making it an effortless alternative.
Like bomba, Calasparra is also almost exclusive to Spain. It’s grown in the Calasparra region.
While Spaniards don’t usually use Calasparra rice in their paella, it’s the next best option. The cooking process is almost similar, although you may have to adjust the rice to liquid ratio as this variety may not absorb as much as bomba rice.
Is Arborio Rice OK for Paella?
Availability in the United States makes arborio an attractive alternative. The truth is that this rice variety is used mainly in risotto.
Risotto is a starchy, cheesy dish. A far cry from the paella consistency you’re going for in any recipe. However, several chefs agree that arborio can substitute bomba rice in paella if cooked properly.
You may require more advanced cooking skills when using arborio. It cannot absorb as much liquid as bomba and becomes more creamy and chewy when cooked.
So, while using arborio rice is okay, you may need to adjust measurements if you’re following a recipe that uses bomba rice.
Which is the Best Rice for Paella?
Bomba is the best rice for paella. It’s not only authentic to the dish, but the results are almost always perfect. Calasparra rice is an excellent substitute if you can’t get your hands on bomba rice.
Arborio Rice can work if you can’t get bomba or Calasparra. But you need to adjust the measurements and pay closer attention during cooking.
Socarrat Restaurant is one of the Spanish restaurants in Chelsea NYC that serves the best authentic paella in the United States.