9 Not-So-Secret Weapons of Spanish Cooking

The not-so-secret keys to Spanish Cooking
The tricks of the trade of Spanish cooking.

Spanish pantries may be small, but they are packed with possibility. With just a handful of basic building blocks, Spanish chefs construct a vast world of spectacular food.

You won’t find many canned, jarred or processed items in Spanish kitchens. In Spain freshness is paramount and ready-to-eat packaged food is still a rarity. Instead, people opt for fresh meats and vegetables and just a few essential spices.

While dishes vary widely from region to region, city to city, these nine ingredients are front and center from La Coruña to Cadiz. Any Spanish chef would be lost without them!

1. Salt

Papas arrugas are one of the best uses of salt in Spain!
Salty Canary Island-style wrinkled potatoes. Photo by Courtney Likkel of Adelante.

As a black pepper girl, I am still shocked at the amount of salt used in Spanish cooking. The average Spaniard consumes a whopping 2.8 pounds of it per year! It is so prevalent, in fact, that at many tables you’ll find they’ve replaced the pepper shaker with another salt shaker.

While it is most commonly sprinkled over any and all dishes, there are a few Spanish recipes where salt plays a leading role. Papas arrugadas from the Canary Islands would be plain old boiled potatoes if it weren’t for the salt, which gives them their special wrinkled look.

Salted meats and fish are also hugely popular in Spain, where many families still cure meats in salt the same way their ancestors have for thousands of years.

Tasty Spanish Recipes Using Salt:

2. Paprika

Secrets to Spanish cooking: paprika!
Oh the wonderful ways to use Spanish paprika… like in this salted cod!

Spaniards have Christopher Columbus to thank for this classic Spanish spice. It was Columbus who first introduced the peppers that would eventually become paprika to Spain in the 15th century.

Since then, this smokey red powder has become one of the most characteristic spices in Spain. There are three popular varieties of Spanish paprika: sweet, bittersweet and spicy. Find out more about Spanish paprika here!

Our Favorite Spanish Paprika Recipes

3. Garlic

The keys to Spanish cuisine: garlic
Should be enough for a week or two…

I use orders of magnitude more garlic in Spain than I ever did in the United States. Garlic is tossed into Spanish dishes by the handful. Meats are roasted with whole cloves of it, stews are simmed with tablespoons or more of it, and vegetables are topped with olive oil fried slivers of it.

Top Spanish Recipes With Garlic

Try Seville’s famous pork loin with garlic whiskey sauce on the Tastes, Tapas and Traditions of Seville food tour!

4. Olive Oil

The Keys to Spanish Cooking: Olive OIl
A bit of olive oil makes everything better! Photo by Courtney Likkel

Is there ever such a thing as too much olive oil? Not in Spain! Spain is the world’s top olive oil producer and Spaniards consume more olive oil than any other country in the world besides Greece.

They fry with it, sauté with it, dress salads with it and even bake with it! In fact, there are few dishes in Spain that do not have olive oil in the ingredient list. Find out more about Spanish olive oil here.

Spanish Olive Oil Recipes

5. Tomatoes

The Keys to Spanish Cooking: Tomatoes
Tomatoes for every taste!

 

Spanish grocery stores have entire swaths of the produce department dedicated to tomatoes, perhaps the most versatile vegetable in all of Spain. At my neighborhood produce stand I have no less than 10 tomato options, all of which are grown locally.

There are the warped rafs, the giant corazon de buey (ox heart) and the burgandy kumatas. And those are just the fresh tomatoes. Shelves are stacked with dozens of types of tomate frito, tomato sauce made from sautéed tomatoes, olive oil and salt, which is poured over everything from rice to tuna steaks.

With such an amazing  variety of tomatoes at their disposal, Spanish chefs employ them in a huge number of ways. The best are simply sliced into medallions, drizzled with olive oil and eaten plain. Others are grated and heaped over toast with olive oil for breakfast. Many are stewed with roasts or fish and still others are made into any number of flavor-packed sauces.

Spanish Recipes Showcasing Tomatoes

6. Sherry Vinegar

9 ingredients no Spanish chef could live without: Sherry vinegar
This traditional sherry solera is the secret to amazing sherry vinegar

Sherry vinegar is the fine wine of all vinegars. Much like the fortified wine it is made from, sherry vinegar is strictly regulated by a quality control board. All sherry vinegar must be made in the southern Spanish Sherry-making region of Jerez and be aged a minimum of six months in American oak barrels.

Most of these vinegars, which are known as vinagre de Jerez in Spanish, go through the solera aging system. Check out an awesome graphic on how a solera works here.

These elaborate vinegars vary greatly from sweet, syrupy Pedro Ximénez to the light, acidic Reservas. It adds strong flavor to any dish and is especially popular with salads, fish and even desserts (think sweet vinegar stewed pears)!

Spanish Sherry Vinegar Recipes

7. Potatoes

Keys to Spanish Cooking: potatoes
One of my favorite uses of potatoes in Spain: with octopus!

Potatoes, in many ways, are the universal (and only!) side dish in Spain. In a country where mixing foods on one plate is one notch shy of blasphemy, side dishes are a rare occurance. If you do find two different recipes on the same plate, odds are one of them is potatoes.

French fries, potato salad, boiled potatoes, garlic roasted potatoes, potato omelets… there are few ways Spaniards don’t use potatoes!

Our Favorite Spanish Potato Recipes

8. Red Wine

Secrets to Spanish cooking: red wine
Good in the glass, great in the stew!

Spanish red wine is vital both in the kitchen and at the table. Wine is often the beverage of choice to accompany lunch and dinner, be it a menu of the day on a work lunch break or a holiday dinner with the family.

But wine also plays an important role in the Spanish kitchen, especially in the north where stews and long-roasted meats are staples of the cuisine. Red wine adds the umph to everything from Spanish oxtail stew, to red wine fried chorizo. It is even the basis of one of Spain’s most popular Easter desserts, torrijas, which are similar to French toast but soaked in sweetened red wine!

Spanish Red Wine Recipes

9. Fresh Bread

9 Secrets to Spanish Cooking
Bread is so much more than an appetizer!

It hardly counts as a meal if there is no bread. From beautiful straw-colored baguettes to rustic rye hogazas, Spanish bread is at once the most basic of foods and an elaborate work of culinary art.

A basket of bread is as fundamental to a Spanish lunch or dinner as a fork or a salt shaker. But unlike in the United States, the bread basket goes with the main plates and is not eaten as an appetizer. In some ways bread is the fourth utensil. People use it to push food onto forks and to sop up any scrumptious sauces left on the plate!

What is your favorite Spanish ingredient?

Comments

  1. I’m crazed for smoky Spanish paprika! I’m always on the lookout for recipes that use it and for anything to put it on. Muy delicioso!

  2. How could you forget the most important one–A Spanish suegra to teach you all the tricks…. or to continue to spoil you by using all of these secrets to make your favorite dishes every time you go over 🙂

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