What is the most authentic Spanish paella recipe? It’s a controversial subject! But this classic paella Valenciana recipe is the traditional chicken paella that many call the original. It combines chicken and either pork ribs or rabbit (your choice!) with green beans, butter beans, garlic, paprika, and saffron.
The results are stunning. When made well, a paella Valenciana is one of the most delicious Spanish rice dishes you’ll try. So if you’re looking for the classic Spanish paella recipe, you’re in the right place.
The Problem with Paella
Is there anything more Spanish than a good paella?
At its best, traditional paella is the happiest thing you can do with rice. But the problem is: paella is rarely at its best.
All too often, the paellas served across Spain are just bad copies of the real thing. They’ll blind you with their neon yellow color (from an overdose of artificial food coloring), and the rice gets piled so high in the pan that you can barely see the overcooked and rubbery shrimp they’ve thrown on top!
Most people coming to Spain seem to think that paella is a heaping mix of seafood and meat. And while this version does exist, most paellas are regional — and they feature only a few key ingredients, as the rice itself is supposed to be the star of the show!
Paella Valenciana: The Real Deal
So how are you meant to get a taste of authentic paella?
Like most Spaniards will tell you, the best traditional paellas are all homemade!
Good paella takes time and love to make well. The ingredients may vary, but they’re usually fresh and local.
And contrary to popular belief, the traditional version of paella from Valencia doesn’t have seafood! While the most well-known versions of the dish are covered in shrimp and mussels, traditional paella is altogether meatier. A real paella Valenciana is made with chicken and rabbit (and often snails), spiced with sweet paprika and a few strands of golden saffron.
And best of all is the socarrat. The slow, undisturbed simmering of the rice in broth means that the bottom layer will start to caramelize. It’s this crispy base of rice that makes paella a heavenly experience for locals, and a taste sensation for everyone else! Keep reading for tips on how to get socarrat.
Key Ingredients: Chicken, ribs or rabbit, garlic, tomato, green beans, butter beans, olive oil, paprika, saffron, salt, and rice.
Ingredient Notes & Substitutions
While any traditional Valencian paella recipe includes some key ingredients, others can be swapped out. And if you can’t find the local Valencian version (of the beans, for example) I’ve put some easy substitutions.
- Chicken: In my opinion chicken is key to this dish — but if for some reason you prefer to go 100% rabbit or a mix of rabbit and snails or pork ribs, go for it! These are the four most common meats/proteins found in the paella Valenciana. I have never come around to snails, so I skip them. And I also prefer working with pork ribs to rabbit, but have included the recipe notes for both below. It is key here to have your butcher chop the meat into small pieces. This will allow the caramelization and flavor needed to create the most delicious paella stock, which will then transfer to the rice as well!
- Garlic: As you’ll see in this chart of the most common Valencian paella ingredients, garlic is only used by 48% of chefs. Some argue that it has no place in a traditional paella. I happen to love garlic and the flavor it adds, but feel free to omit.
- Tomato: On the other hand, tomato is key to Valencian paella. It deglazes the pan after cooking the meat, and helps make the famous sofrito — the mix of ingredients that form the base of a great paella. The most traditional way here is to use freshly grated tomato (just cut a ripe tomato in half and grate using a box grater) but you can substitute passata or good quality canned crushed tomato if you must.
- Green Beans: In Valencia, they use a flat green bean called judía ferradura. If you can’t find flat green beans where you live, simply use good quality string beans. I like to use fresh ones when possible, but frozen also work!
- Butter Beans: In Valencia, these are called garrofó and they’re grown locally, making them easy to get a hold of. They are a type of Lima bean, so you can use any Lima bean or butter beans you have access to. You can buy them dried and cook them before using them in the paella, or simply buy the best quality jarred version you can find. I would definitely make an effort to include these, if possible. They add a wonderful and unique taste to the paella Valenciana!
- Paprika: Use Spanish paprika (pimentón) if at all possible. I like using pimentón de Murcia — which isn’t as smokey as the more famous pimentón de la Vera. But both are acceptable.
- Rice: The ideal rice for paella Valenciana is a short/medium grain round variety. While Bomba rice is most commonly used, most local chefs prefer other varieties like Calasparra or Senia. I personally use Senia and really like it! If you can’t find Spanish rice varieties where you live, you can use Arborio, although the results will be different. The special thing about Bomba rice (and similar varieties) is its ability to absorb 3x the liquid of long grain rice without breaking down and getting mushy. So try to find it — or order it in advance if you can!
- Olive Oil: Olive oil is very important to this recipe. While it may seem like you are adding a LOT of olive oil — just do it. You really need that quantity to cook the meat and still have oil left over to cook the veggies. And the excess oil in the sofrito is actually what helps form the socarrat (that crispy bottom layer of the paella) — more on that later!
- Saffron: Of course a traditional Spanish paella recipe needs saffron! The color and subtle flavor this expensive spice provides are unique. But I’ll be honest — if you don’t have any on hand don’t let that stop you from making paella.
- Salt: Another often overlooked ingredient is salt! Here we will add salt from the very start of the recipe. And we’ll add quite a bit… but it will amplify the flavor of everything else in the dish and make the most delicious paella you’ve ever tried!
- Water: Finally, let’s talk about the water. Valencians swear that the local water is part of their paella’s success. I live in Madrid, so I don’t know if that’s true… but regardless, getting the amount of water right is key. The thing about Valencian paella is that you never add stock — just water. So you need to add lots of water at first, then reduce it down to only 3x the amount of rice you have in the dish (remember, Spanish rice varieties are a 3:1 ratio). This can be tricky, but I have an easy way to eyeball it described below.
Paella Valenciana: Step by Step
Making Valencian paella is very easy once you get the hang of it, but there are quite a few steps to make sure you get the best results! Read through this tutorial first, and then scroll down to the printable recipe card for exact measurements.
Steps 1-2: Put your paella pan on medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Then sprinkle all of the salt in a circle towards the edge of the pan. This will keep the oil from splattering too much. Now add all of the meat (the chicken and either rabbit or pork ribs). Brown the meat on all sides over the next 20 minutes — turn it every 3-5 minutes, allowing it to brown and caramelize a bit. All of the bits that stick to the pan here will come off when you add the tomato and water in the future — and they’ll really bring a deep flavor to the cooking liquid.
Steps 3-4: Once the meat is well browned (about 20 minutes of cooking) push it to the sides of the pan. The olive oil should pool in the center. Add the green beans, cut into one inch pieces. Sauté the beans for about three minutes.
Steps 5-6: Now push the beans aside and add the garlic. Sauté for about 30 seconds (until fragrant) and add the butter beans. If you’re using jarred butter beans be careful not to break them. I gently move them to coat in the oil and garlic and then leave them about 30 seconds per side to get a bit browned.
Steps 7-8: Next, add the paprika and gently sauté for about one minute. Finally, add the crushed tomatoes and start to mix everything together. The tomato should start to deglaze the pan (loosen all of the stuck bits below). This is good, so feel free to help with a good scrape (I’d recommend a wooden spoon).
Steps 9-10: As you start to mix in the tomato, you can also add the saffron (which you should soak in warm water for at least 10 minutes prior to adding). Next, you add the water. The tricky thing here is that you need to add the water for the stock and the rice cooking all at once. We know the rice is a 3:1 ratio, so what I learned it to first add this amount of water (see recipe card below for exact amounts) and then use a toothpick to remember how much the stock needs to reduce by to add the rice.
Steps 11-12: Here you can see how I do this. Insert a toothpick (or wooden spoon handle) into the center of the paella pan. You’ll see the line of where the water went up to when there was the perfect amount of liquid to add the rice. Keep this toothpick for later, when you’ll need to make sure you haven’t reduced the stock too much or too little, and you’re ready to add the rice.
Steps 13-14: Now you add the rest of the water. Simmer on medium for about 10 minutes, and then lower the heat to a slow simmer for another 10 minutes. In these 20 minutes the liquid will reduce and you’ll be left with a flavorful meat stock that is key to this paella recipe. After 20 minutes the water should be the perfect amount to cook the rice — but of course we have to check to make sure! This is where you use the toothpick to see if you need to reduce a little more liquid, or if you need to add a bit more. Adjust accordingly, then add the rice.
Right after you add the rice you can stir just a bit to make sure the rice is all covered by broth and more or less evenly distributed. But if your paella pan is on a flat surface, this shouldn’t be an issue. After this quick stir (only if needed) you will not stir again — no matter how tempted you are! This is key to making sure the rice cooks properly and doesn’t release tons of starch.
Step 15: Now you wait for the rice to cook! But of course, it’s not quite that simple. Here you want to cook the rice on medium-high for the first 10 minutes (a rapid simmer). Then turn the heat down to medium-low, and cook for another 8-10 minutes. The exact cook time depends on the variety of rice (for reference, Bomba rice takes 20 minutes in total).
To achieve the coveted socarrat (the crispy, caramelized bottom) turn the heat up at the very end of the cooking process. You’ll start to hear a rain-like sound — let it go for about 30 seconds, but make sure to stop and turn off the heat if you smell burning! This is a tricky part of the paella process that takes some practice, but I find that once the popcorn/rain noise starts I let it go for about 30 seconds and get a decent amount of socarrat on the bottom.
Before digging in, let the rice rest. Take it off the heat and cover it with a dishtowel. Let it rest for five minutes. Now it’s time to eat! The best way to eat paella is family-style — directly out of the pan using a wooden spoon. If you prefer to use plates, just make sure to scrape the bottom of the pan and give everyone some socarrat!
Recipe Tips & FAQs
It depends. There are hundreds of different rice dishes in Spain, and many are called paella. Seafood paella is very common and popular. But many Valencians would argue that the dish called paella is only the paella Valenciana — a meat based version such as the one in this post.
The art of crispy paella crust (called socarrat) is not easy — but it’s possible. My tip is to turn up the heat once the rice is just about cooked and wait to hear a popcorn/crackling sound. Let it crackle for 30 seconds and then remove from the heat. This should allow the rice to caramelize at the bottom creating the perfect crust.
Never! One you add the rice to paella Valenciana you can give it a quick stir to ensure it’s even but then you do not touch it again. This is essential for the rice’s final texture (which leans towards al dente) and the crispy socarrat.
If your rice is still too hard, it’s not quite cooked enough. Perhaps you evaporated the liquid too quickly, or didn’t have quite enough to start with. The best course of action is to cover the cooked paella with a dishtowel or newspapers for 5-10 minutes. This should allow the rice to finish cooking.
In this case, your rice is overcooked. You may have used too much liquid, or cooked the paella too long. Next time make sure to check the ratio and cook time for your specific rice variety. And turn up the heat a bit more so it cooks quicker. Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for overcooked rice.
Kind of. I don’t recommend making the entire paella in advance, as it’s meant to be enjoyed immediately. But you can make the sofrito and even the stock in advance. You could make the entire dish up to the point of adding the rice. Then let it cool and store in the fridge (2 days max) or freezer (3 months max). When you are ready to prepare the paella with the rice, simply bring everything to a rapid simmer and make sure any liquid that evaporates is added back (so you have a 3:1 rice/water ratio). Then add the rice and continue with the recipe as written.
Paella Valenciana makes the perfect weekend lunch meal. Like the hamburgers at a barbecue, it’s the main event! But while waiting for it to cook, start with some tapas. I recommend classic Spanish tapas like gazpacho shooters, ham croquettes, or boiled shrimp.
More Traditional Spanish Paella Recipes
Paella Valenciana may not be the first paella people think of when they think of Spain, but it is definitely one of the most traditional! For other options, see below, and learn more about the different Spanish rice dishes here.
- Spanish Vegetable Paella: A vegetable-filled vegetarian paella from Murcia.
- Seafood Paella: The most popular paella recipe from Spain, seafood paella never fails!
- Baked Rice with Dates and Garbanzos: A yummy baked rice that is also vegetarian friendly.
- Black Paella Recipe (Arroz Negro): The classic squid ink paella from Spain.
- Prawn and Chorizo Paella Recipe: A delicious (and not traditional) combination of surf and turf.
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Spanish Paella Recipe (Paella Valenciana)
- 1/3 cup olive oil (80 ml) ideally good quality virgin or extra virgin Spanish olive oil
- 1/2 a whole chicken (1200 grams or 2.6 lbs) chopped into small bits by your butcher (about 15+ bits from half a chicken)
- 1 lb ribs (450 g) chopped into small pieces by the butcher
- 4 cloves of garlic minced
- 2 medium tomatoes grated (approx. 80 ml or 1/3 cup). You can use good quality passata if preferred.
- 10 ounces green beans (285 g) of flat green beans, washed and cut into 2-inch pieces. *See notes for all substitution notes, but string beans also work
- 1/3 lb of butter beans (150 g) In Spain, we use garrafón — a special kind of large Lima bean. Try to find good quality jarred butter beans instead. See notes for all substitutions.
- 2 teaspoons sweet Spanish paprika If able, use paprika from Murcia (unsmoked). But pimentón de la Vera is also fine.
- 1 pinch saffron about 10 threads. Soak in a tablespoon of hot water until ready to use.
- 14.1 oz rice (400 grams) of a variety of paella rice. My preference is called Senia but it's hard to find. Try to find Bomba, Calasparra, or if unable to find any of the above, use Arborio. See notes for more details.
- 1.5 tbsp salt (22 g) it may seem like a lot, but it is essential for flavor.
- 9 cups water (2,130 ml total) 4 cups for the stock (this will evaporate) and 5 cups for the rice (paella rice varieties have about a 2.5-3:1 water/rice ratio)
Optional – Rabbit Paella Option
- 1/2 a whole rabbit roughly 2 pounds, cut into same size pieces as the chicken *OPTIONAL* Only if you want to go fully authentic! In this case omit the ribs.
- Heat a paella pan over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Swirl to coat the entire base of the pan. Add the salt in a circle around the diameter of the pan. This will keep the meat from splattering too much once cooking.
- Add the chicken and pork ribs or rabbit (if using) and cook until golden brown. I recommend moving the meat every five minutes for about 20 minutes in total. The browned, caramelized bits that stick to the pan will give lots of flavor to the paella.
- Push the meat away from the center of the pan, and add the green beans and cook for about three minutes.
- Move the beans to the edge and add the garlic. Sauté for about 30 seconds, making sure not to burn.
- Add the butter beans. Sauté very carefully, for about one minute. Be careful not to break/mash them.
- Add the paprika and sauté for about 30 seconds and then add the tomato and saffron. Slowly mix everything in the pan together, taking care not to break the beans.
- Now add the water. I recommend adding first the 5 cups needed to cook the rice. Then, use a toothpick to mark how far up the water goes. Record this water line. Then add the other four cups. Bring to a rapid boil for about 10 minutes, and then lower to a simmer for another 15-20 minutes. Ideally, at this point, there are only 5 cups of water left in the pan (the amount needed to make rice for 4 people). You can check by using your toothpick. The water line should match the same mark as before — if it's higher keep cooking, and if it's lower add a bit more water.
- Now it's time for the rice! Add the rice to the pan and give a slight stir if necessary to ensure all rice is submerged in the liquid and evenly spread. Cook at a high simmer for 10 minutes, then reduce to a low simmer for another 8-10 minutes (depending on the variety of the rice). You'll know when the rice is ready and the broth is gone, as you will hear a faint ticking/cracking coming from the bottom layer of rice. This crackling means that the rice is caramelizing on the bottom (called socarrat) — that's a good thing. When you start to hear it, turn up the heat for about 30 seconds (stop immediately if you start to smell burning).
- Remove the paella from the heat and cover with a dishcloth for five minutes. Then serve immediately!
- The ideal paella rice is a short/medium grain round variety such as Bomba rice. If necessary, you can substitute Arborio. You can order it in advance if you can!
- A paella pan is a special frying pan for making paella. If you don’t have one (very likely if you don’t live in Spain), use your largest, flattest skillet. I like to use cast iron if not able to use a paella pan.
- If you can’t find saffron or it is cost-prohibitive, you can use a pinch of turmeric for color or simply omit it.
- This recipe is written for four people and I use a 22-inch (56 cm) size paella pan. Traditional paella is made in a very thin layer. You can use a smaller pan for this recipe, but the rice will be higher and it will be harder to get socarrat.
- If possible, cook over an open flame. If you have a gas stove, that’s ideal. If not, try an outdoor paella kit.
Update Notice: This post was originally published on April 3, 2020 and was republished with new text and photos on May 11, 2021.
Have you ever had a “real” Spanish paella? Let me know where (and if it had rabbit or snails!) in the comments below!
Photography by Giulia Verdinelli