Chances are you’ve seen a paella pan—the wide, shallow cooking vessel used to make the Spanish rice-and-meat (or seafood) dish of the same name. But have you ever cooked paella in one? If you’re thinking of taking the plunge and getting a paella pan of your own, here’s what’s you need to know.

First and foremost, it’s important to note that paella is the definitive dish of the Valencia region of Spain, and the pan defines the dish—literally. “Paella” is a Valencian word derived from the Latin term for “pan.” Paella pans are wide and shallow to create maximum surface area, allowing liquid to evaporate and to form as much crispy golden crust (socarrat) on the bottom as possible. “Paella is not just a dish, it’s a way of life in Valencia; everything revolves around the paella pan … around rice culture … It’s 10 or 12 ingredients transformed through fire into a really beautiful and cohesive dish,” declares Matt Goulding, author of the IACP Award-winning book “Grape, Olive, Pig: Deep Travels Through Spain’s Food Culture.”

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Related: Essential Pans Every Cook Should Own

What Size Paella Pan Do I Need?

Paella pans range in diameter from a dainty eight inches—intended for a single serving—all the way up to a mind-blowing 60 inches, which can cook enough paella to feed 300 of your closest friends. When deciding what size paella pan to buy, think about the maximum number of people you’re likely to be feeding, and where you’ll be cooking: on top of your kitchen stove, in your oven, or outside over a grill? Measure your oven or your grill before you decide on a pan. (Hint: on your stovetop you can put large pans over two or three burners.) If you’re really ready to commit to the paella lifestyle, you can also buy specially designed propane-powered paella burners for outdoor use.

Paella Pan Size Guide:
4 to 6 servings: 16-inch pan
6 to 8 servings: 18-inch pan
8 to 12 servings: 22-inch pan
12 to 20 servings: 26-inch pan
20 to 40 servings: 32-inch pan

Carbon, Stainless, or Enameled Steel? Deciding What Kind of Paella Pan to Buy

Paella pans are constructed from a variety of materials. How do you choose the right one? Carbon steel paella pans are traditionally used across Valencia, the heart of paella country. They are affordable, lightweight, and conduct heat very efficiently. Carbon steel does require some seasoning and maintenance between uses, so be sure to follow the instructions that come with your pan.

You have other options, too. Stainless steel paella pans are heavy-duty and do not require any special upkeep. They are more expensive than carbon steel pans but they are very durable and should last you a lifetime. Last but not least, you can purchase an enameled steel iteration. Affordable, lighter than stainless, and easy to clean, enameled steel pans are even dishwasher safe.

What Else Can I Use a Paella Pan For?

You can make your paella pan earn its keep by putting it to good use for other kinds of cooking. Any kind of cooking that requires a wide, flat surface will do well in a paella pan. Use it for searing steaks, chicken cutlets, fish fillets, and roasts; as a griddle for pancakes, bacon, and other breakfast treats; for stir-frying in place of a wok; as a stand-in for a roasting pan; and even for cooking over a campfire.

Where’s the Lid?

Trick question! Paella pans don’t come with lids, and for good reason: The liquid needs to be allowed to evaporate while the paella is cooking so you end up with tender-but-not-soggy rice with a good socarrat.

Can I Make Paella Without a Paella Pan?

Want to dabble in paella without committing to a special pan? No problem! Any wide, shallow skillet will be up to the job. If you’re making your paella in the oven, just make sure that the entire pan, even the handle, is heat-safe. The most important tip to keep in mind is that your layer of rice should be no more than two inches deep.

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