Making the perfect paella is a bit like conducting a symphony. You bring together the best of ingredients and use each to its fullest potential. But, just as you wouldn’t listen to the London Philharmonic in a hall that drowned out their sound, making the perfect paella begins with having the right pan. And, broadly writ, that comes down to a choice of two, possibly three, types of paella pans.
For reasons of heat transfer and ease of manufacture, most of the locals in Valencia, Spain (the place where paella began, and the place most people acknowledge as “the place” for traditional paella) use a steel pan.
If you have cash to spare you might go with stainless steel as it lasts longer, but the locals in Valencia seem content to use plain old carbon steel, either coated in a thin layer of enamel or uncoated.
The debate over whether to go coated or uncoated is largely personal preference. But the enamel coated (black and white-spotted) paella pans are generally considered to be easier to care for.
The enamel coating is mostly non-stick and cleans easily. That said, the enamel will start to wear off over time and the pan will need to be replaced. The uncoated (grey/silver) paella pans need to be oiled after they are used (much like caring for a cast iron pan).
Valencianos (Valencia residents) seem to agree that the enamel-coated pans are best for those who will use the pan infrequently, or for those with less kitchen experience or time to spare. Regardless which pan you choose they are nearly identical in price (€5-8 for a 30cm enamel-coated paella pan in a local neighborhood store), and are easy to find all over Valencia.
My sources suggest that you’ll pay a bit more (€1-3 more) in a local neighborhood store (away from the tourist shops down around the cathedral), but the quality may also be a bit better. So, in Valencia it’s up to you to decide if you’d rather spend a bit more for a better pan and take the extra 15 minutes to find a local store off the beaten track. Online I easily located similar looking paella pans priced from £4-10.
If you are one of those people (like my wife) ho abhors (or doesn’t have room for) single-purpose kitchenware, take heart. Though it may be heresy to say, I’ve used my paella pan to make pizza, a thin crust apple tart, and as a serving tray.
As with most cooking, the gear doesn’t make the chef, but having decent equipment does make certain things easier. And buying a purpose built paella pan certainly makes paella easier. The differences in price and quality are negligible so I’d suggest striking out and finding a local shop wherever you happen to be in paella country. Enamel coated is easier to start with, and just think, when you become an “expert” at paella you can always treat yourself to another pan.
Text and photos by Glenn D. Kaufmann
Paella pans are readily available throughout Valencia’s historic old city district, in the neighborhoods markets, and in stores all around town.
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1. Personal Interviews and experiences