I have eaten paella in Spain; I then ate it in Italy, but it didn't taste like the one in Spain.

What is the ingredient that makes the Spanish paella so particular? I remember they used a particular sauce for the meat (I have eaten both the Valencian paella and the seafood paella); if that is what makes the difference, what are the ingredients for that sauce?

  • I wasn't aware that Italy was particularly known for paella.
    – hobodave
    Aug 7, 2010 at 4:23
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    If you can find polenta in USA, then you can find paella in Italy too. :-) Italy is, indeed, not famous for paella (considering that paella is a Spanish dish), but you can find it in restaurants, and even as frozen food in supermarkets.
    – apaderno
    Aug 7, 2010 at 4:28
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    Yes, today Paella can be found pretty much anywhere. Somewhere, eluding me now, in on of my books on food history, or in research I did at some point, I found a reference indicating that certain areas of northern Italy had at one time been ruled by the Catalonians of Spain and some food historians believe that risotto is the result of paella originally being introduced during this reign and then over time turning it what we know as risotto today. Aug 7, 2010 at 5:36
  • +1 for the interesting explanation of the origin of risotto.
    – apaderno
    Aug 7, 2010 at 6:40
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    @Darin: The crown of Aragon at one time (16th century) formally ruled Catalunya, Mallorca, Sardinia, Naples, and Sicily. This probably does help explain some culinary similarities.
    – Dan Fox
    Aug 29, 2013 at 10:09

4 Answers 4


The most prominent flavors in authentic paella are pimenton (smoked paprika), saffron, a sofrito of onion and tomato, garlic, and the broth.

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    Pimentón is not part of any paella recipe I'm aware of. In fact, saffron and pimentón don't mix well as the (relatively cheap) pimentón gives much more flavor than the (very expensive) saffron. Sep 6, 2010 at 9:06
  • I'll cite a couple of examples: spanishtable.com/mm5/… and theperfectpantry.com/2006/09/spanish_paprika.html - google: paella recipe pimenton for plenty more Oct 23, 2010 at 19:13
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    Also, onion is not part of the original paella recipe. Purists frown upon onion in paella.
    – PA.
    Dec 16, 2014 at 9:20
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    @PA, the issue of onion in paella has been discussed elsewhere on this site: 1, 2. Dec 16, 2014 at 9:44
  • Also, broth is not used for the authentic paella, it just uses pure water that boils the ingredients and thus becomes a broth in the pan.
    – PA.
    Mar 4, 2015 at 12:01

When I studied abroad in Spain, I lived for 3 months with an elderly Spanish woman, who originally lived in Cuba (so I had some amazing food). Along with teaching me how to make tortilla (Spanish tortilla), she said that saffron was the special ingredient that made the paella special. I should add that to get the best flavor, you need to get real saffron, not the artificial kind. The only problem is real saffron is pretty expensive.

  • Saffron is cultivated in Italy and I have never seen artificial saffron, here. I agree that saffron can make the difference, but it was not that the particular taste I found; that doesn't mean the different taste between the paella I tasted in Spain and Italy could be caused by the quantity of used saffron (or by a combination of different ingredients).
    – apaderno
    Aug 8, 2010 at 11:45

The secret ingredients in paella are the socarrat and cooking with wood. Socarrat comes from the part of the rice browning and burning at the bottom of the pan, and thus slightly smoking the rest of it. Another part of the subtle smoked flavor comes from the wood.


The special ingredient of paella is saffron (as everybody else already confirms).

The best way of preparing saffron for your paella is to soak it in warm water at least 30 min. before you add it to any dish. Take care not to mix it with your broth as you are not going to use all of it. When the rice is ready to be cooked, first add one measure of boiling broth, then add the saffron infusion, then add the rest of the broth you need to measure out.

When buying saffron, look for threads, those are the stamps of the flowers. Don't buy the saffron powder. The powder is cheaper, but you can't be sure it wasn't adulterated. Saffron is very expensive, as it's very labor intensive.

Really real paella is cooked on vines. That will give a smoky flavor. But I don't think you'll find that in a restaurant.

  • Paella is cooked on wood, yes, but I've never heard of anyone using vines. In Valencia (the home of paella) they use wood from orange trees. And yes, good restaurants do cook over wood. Dec 16, 2014 at 9:48
  • Saffron is very expensive, but a little goes a long way. When I add it to my paella, I add the amount called for to the broth and heat/steep it. It all goes into the paella. If you're removing it, maybe that's why you think the paprika overpowers the saffron. Mar 3, 2017 at 15:41

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