When we first moved to Arizona we experienced our first authentic paella at a Spanish restaurant in Scottsdale and we fell in love! It was hearty, aromatic and full of addictive flavors.
It’s a family-style meal that’s served in a paella pan right on your table. You don’t even need plates, you just dig right in! The ambiance of the restaurant is spot on with its rustic appeal and live Spanish music. We always have a great time when we go.
It’s an hour drive so we don’t get there as often as we’d like. So, I decided to make my own vegan paella at home. I asked the owner for some tips and his biggest piece of advice was to NEVER STIR THE PAELLA!
WHAT KIND OF RICE DO I NEED FOR VEGAN PAELLA?
The best rice to use is Bomba Rice because it has the ability to absorb twice the amount of liquid than regular rice without getting mushy. This short-grain Spanish rice will also absorb all the flavors of your broth, seasonings, and oil too. Another popular rice for paella is Calasparra Rice and would be my second choice for making authentic paella.
I buy paella rice online because it’s not readily available in many mainstream stores. You might find it in specialty or ethnic shops though.
However, if you can’t find them, the next best replacement is Arborio Rice which is commonly used for Risotto. It gets super creamy when liquid is stirred in slowly. Paella is not meant to be creamy, so you definitely don’t want to stir the arborio or you’ll end up with risotto. In fact, you shouldn’t stir paella at all once the broth has entered the pan.
WHAT GIVES PAELLA ITS GOLDEN COLOR?
Saffron Threads give paella its distinct golden color and flavor which is somewhat earthy and floral. It’s very subtle but really finishes the dish. It can be a little costly, so if it’s not in your budget you can replace it with turmeric. It will have a different flavor, but will still be subtle and make the rice golden.
DO I NEED A PAELLA PAN TO MAKE THIS VEGAN PAELLA?
I use a Paella Pan which is ideal but it’s not 100% necessary. If you don’t have a paella pan, I would recommend a large 12-14″ stainless steel pan. Don’t use one with a non-stick coating though.
A paella pan is a wide, shallow and thin metal pan with sloped sides. Its flat and wide bottom is designed to maximize the amount of rice touching it which helps create a delicious, toasty crust at the bottom. The sloped and shallow sides help the rice cook evenly too.
Paella is traditionally cooked over a fire and the pans were designed for that, so they work best on gas tops, grills or fire pits. However, I’ve made it on an electric stove with nice results. I had to rotate the pan more, but the rice still cooked nicely.
WHAT IS SOCARRAT?
This is the crispy golden crust that forms on the bottom of the pan. It infuses the paella with a deep smoky and slightly nutty flavor. It’s glorious!
HOW TO MAKE VEGAN PAELLA
Before you start, add the vegetable broth and saffron threads to a medium pot. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat for 1 minute, then lower the heat just to keep it warm.
- Sauté onions and peppers until softened
- Add garlic and sauté until golden
- Now add tomatoes and spices. Sauté until tomatoes soften.
- Add rice and lightly toast for 1-2 minutes.
- When the rice is toasted, slowly add broth and bring to a heavy simmer for a minute (don’t stir!). Turn heat down to a mild simmer for 15-20 minutes until rice is al dente.
- Once the broth is nearly cooked off, you’ll need to pay attention to the socarrat forming on the bottom of the pan. You’ll hear a snap, crackle, and pop, along with smelling a nutty aroma. Stick a fork straight to the bottom to test if it’s sticking to the bottom. If you notice a burning smell, remove from heat.
- Remove pan from heat and add peas to the top. Cover with foil and let the paella rest for 5-8 minutes.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 4 cups vegetable broth, low sodium
- 1 teaspoon saffron threads
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1 red bell pepper, cut into strips
- 5 cloves garlic, chopped, minced or crushed
- 1 large tomato, diced (sub 1/2 cup canned)
- 1 1/2 cups Bomba Rice (sub arborio rice)
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 1 teaspoon sea salt , more to taste
- Fresh cracked pepper, to taste
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme (sub 1 teaspoon dried)
- 3/4 cup frozen peas, thawed
- Lemon wedges
- Fresh-cut parsley
Add vegetable broth in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Break up the saffron and add it to the broth. When it begins to simmer, give it 1 minute, and then lower the heat just to keep it warm.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a 12-inch Paella Pan (or something similarly sized) over medium heat. Once heated, and the onions and peppers. Sauté until softened and lightly browned, about 3-5 minutes.
Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute.
Now add the tomatoes, smoked paprika, and sweet paprika. Sauté for 1-2 minutes. (if using dried thyme, add it with this step)
Add the rice and remaining 1 tablespoon of oil to the pan. Stir to coat well. Cook for 1 minute to lightly toast the rice and incorporate flavors. Move around occasionally to prevent sticking.
Add the fresh thyme and slowly pour in broth. Add salt and pepper. Do not stir after this point orit will release starches and cause creamier rice. Turn the heat to medium-high and bring the broth to a heavy simmer for 1-2 minutes.
Now turn the heat down (between medium-low and medium heat) to a mild simmer. You want to see movement in the pan while the broth is cooking down (don’t boil though). Simmer for 15-20 minutes until rice is al dente. Rotate the pan on the burner 1-2 times during cooking for even heat distribution.
Once the broth is nearly cooked off, you will need to pay close attention to the socarrat forming on the bottom of the pan (the golden rice crust). You will start to hear a snap, crackle, and pop, along with smelling a nutty aroma. This should take 1-2 minutes to form. Stick a fork or spoon straight to the bottom to test if it’s forming. (If it smells like it’s burning, remove from heat immediately) (*see note).
Remove the pan from the heat. Add the peas to the top of the rice (don’t mix in). Cover the pan with foil and let the paella rest for 5-8 minutes. Top with fresh-cut parsley, cracked pepper and side with lemon wedges to serve. Enjoy!
* Sometimes you might not get the socarrat to form and that’s ok. It all depends on the pan, fat content, heat source and experience. The more you cook paella, the better you’ll get at reading the signs. I’ve had times where I left it too long and it burned. That is never fun, so it’s better to have no socarrat than burnt socarrat. Your paella will still be delicious without it.
*Saffron gives the paella its distinct flavor which is somewhat earthy and floral. It’s very subtle but really finishes the dish. It also turns the rice to a beautiful golden color. It’s a little costly, so if it’s not in your budget you can replace it with turmeric. It will have a different flavor, but will still be subtle and make the rice golden.
If you don’t have a paella pan, I would recommend a large stainless steel pan (don’t use non-stick).