My Goals

  • A fire that outlasts the cooking process

  • An accessible alternative to a paella pan

  • A flavorful mix of proteins

  • Tender-chewy rice with a crisp crust

If you’ve ever made paella, you probably know that no two versions of this famous Spanish rice dish are prepared the same way. The basic template consists of medium-grain rice cooked in a wide, shallow vessel (traditionally, a paellera) with a flavor base called sofrito, broth and maybe wine, and a jumble of meat and/or seafood. Within this framework, the proteins can be anything from poultry to pork to any species of shellfish; the seasonings may include garlic, saffron, smoked paprika—or all of the above; and the embellishments might be peas, bell peppers, or lemon. As the rice absorbs the liquid, the grains in contact with the pan form a caramelized crust known as socarrat—the most prized part of the dish. The final product is colorful and flavor-packed: a one-pot showpiece that’s perfect for entertaining.

What you might not know is that while most modern recipes are cooked on the stove or in the oven, paella was originally made on the grill, and many Spanish cooks still make it that way today. The live fire gives the dish a subtle smokiness and provides an extra-large cooking surface that encourages even socarrat development—a distinct advantage over a stove’s burners or the indirect heat of an oven, which often yield a spotty or pale crust.

Recipes for paella abound, each with a different take on the dish, so we had plenty of research material to go through in preparation for our five-recipe test.

But in my experience, grilling comes with challenges of its own. Besides the usual problem—the quicker-cooking proteins overcook while they wait for heartier items to cook through—keeping a charcoal fire alive can be tricky. Plus, most recipes call for a paella pan, which only enthusiasts keep on hand.

The grilled paella I had in mind would feature tender-chewy rice strewn with moist chicken, sausage, and shellfish; a uniformly golden, crisp crust; and an efficient, reliable cooking method.

We wanted the rich smoky flavor that you can get only from grilling paella. Existing recipes were startling in their variety, with some emphasizing seafood and others heavy on chicken.

Getting Set Up

A paella pan alternative had to be grill-safe, deep enough to accommodate the food (I wanted a recipe that serves eight), and broad to maximize the amount of socarrat. A disposable aluminum pan was large enough, but its flimsy walls made it a nonstarter given the hefty amount of food I was cooking. But a sturdy stainless-steel roasting pan was easy to maneuver, and its surface area was generous—three times as spacious as a large Dutch oven. I worried that the pan’s underside would darken on the grill, but during testing I quickly discovered that the exterior stayed remarkably clean on both charcoal and gas grills.

As for the fire setup, I needed a single layer of coals to expose the pan’s base to even heat, but I also needed long-lasting heat output that wouldn’t require refueling. So I lit 7 (rather than our usual 6) quarts of charcoal and poured them evenly across the kettle’s surface, hoping that would be enough. (On a gas grill, I’d simply crank the burners to high.)

Staggering Along

Knowing I’d have to stagger the additions of the proteins to get them to finish cooking at the same time, I first set the roasting pan over the fire and browned boneless, skinless chicken thighs (richer in flavor than breasts) that I’d halved for easier portioning. From there, I pushed the meat to the side, sautéed the sofrito (finely chopped onion, bell pepper, and tomato) until it softened, and followed with minced garlic, smoked paprika, and saffron. Then came the rice. Traditional Bomba and Valencia have more bite than other medium-grain rices, but Arborio is easier to find and made a good substitute. I stirred it in with a mixture of chicken broth, clam juice, and dry sherry that I hoped would highlight the proteins. Once the rice had absorbed most of the liquid, I scattered chunks of slightly spicy, smoky, cured Spanish chorizo; shrimp (seasoned first with oil, garlic, smoked paprika, and salt); and littleneck clams over the top and let the paella cook until the grains were plump and the underside sizzled—the audible cue that a flavorful crust was forming.

We tried both mussels and clams in our paella but found that clams cooked at a more predictable rate.

My staggering strategy wasn’t quite right. The chicken was a tad dry, while the sausage wasn’t warmed through and the shellfish were just shy of done. Maybe part of the problem was not only when I was adding the proteins but also where I was placing them in the pan. Thinking that the thighs would stay moist if they cooked more gently, I arranged them around the cooler perimeter of the pan. As for the chorizo, shrimp, and clams, they merely sat on top of the rice and received relatively little heat when I added them after most of the liquid had been absorbed. Instead, I partially submerged the shrimp and clams (hinge side down so that their juices could be absorbed by the rice) in the center of the rice after the liquid came to a simmer and then scattered the chorizo over top. As the liquid reduced, all three components would stay warm without overcooking.

Placing the shellfish hinge side down and partially submerging them prevents them from drying out or overcooking, and allows the juices to be absorbed by the cooking rice.

Divide and Conquer

Back to the heat output: The larger fire almost held out until the rice was cooked. But to completely close the gap between the cooking time and the fuel output, I made adjustments to both.

First, I covered the lit coals with 20 fresh briquettes that would gradually ignite during cooking. Next, I seared the chicken thighs directly on the grate rather than in the roasting pan (they’d still finish cooking at the edges of the pan). They browned in half the time and picked up valuable grill flavor.

Then, I retooled the sofrito to make it quicker. Instead of waterlogged fresh peppers and tomato, I used roasted red peppers and tomato paste—shortcuts to the caramelized sweetness achieved in a long-cooked sofrito. I also divided the sofrito into two parts, sautéing the peppers with the onions in the roasting pan but adding the tomato paste and aromatics (toasted first to deepen their flavor) to the cooking liquids. Finally, I brought the seasoned broth to a boil in a saucepan so that it would quickly simmer when I poured it into the roasting pan.

A Blueprint for Paella on the Grill

Producing perfectly cooked paella on the grill isn’t hard; it just takes some planning as to exactly where and when to add each element.

1. Peas

Scattered across the surface at the end of cooking, the peas stay plump.

2. Chorizo

Added before the liquid is absorbed, the precooked cured sausage warms through without drying out.

3. Shrimp and Clams

Partially submerging the shellfish in the simmering liquid in the center of the pan ensures that they stay warm without overcooking.

4. Chicken

After being seared on the grill, the thighs are arranged around the pan’s cooler perimeter, where they cook through slowly and gently.

5. Large Roasting Pan

Thanks to the roasting pan’s generous surface area—nearly triple that of a Dutch oven—the rice develops lots of the prized crust called socarrat. (Don’t worry; the pan won’t burn.)

Finally, the proteins were spot-on, but I took a couple of extra steps to ensure that the rice cooked evenly from top to bottom, periodically shuffling the pan around over the fire to avoid any hot spots and scraping a corner of the rice with a spoon to track the socarrat development. When the grains were almost cooked through, I scattered thawed frozen peas over the surface (they would add sweet pop and color) and covered the grill so that the trapped steam would heat them through and finish cooking any underdone grains at the surface.

The finished paella was a stunner—as impressive to eat as it was to behold. And now that I had the blueprint for making it successfully on the grill, I wasn’t sure I’d ever go back to the indoor version.

Keys to Success

  • A fire that outlasts the cooking process

    Lighting a large fire (using 7 quarts of charcoal) and topping it with fresh briquettes that will ignite during cooking makes it unnecessary to refuel during cooking. Halving the chicken thighs and grilling (rather than searing) them helps them cook faster. Seasoning and heating the cooking liquid indoors means that it won’t cool down the paella (and slow the cooking) when it’s added to the pan.
  • An accessible alternative to a paella pan

    The broad surface of a large roasting pan is comparable to a large 15- to 17-inch paella pan and thus allows for the formation of a maximum amount of crusty rice. Its sturdy frame and handles also make it easy to maneuver on the grill.
  • A flavorful mix of proteins

    Chicken thighs (more flavorful than breasts), chorizo, shrimp, and clams make for a nice balance of savory, smoky, and briny-sweet flavors. Staggering the additions of these items ensures that they finish cooking at the same time.
  • Tender-chewy rice with a crisp crust

    Arborio rice offers a firm chew similar to hard-to-find Spanish varieties like Bomba and Valencia. Periodically shuffling the pan on the grill prevents hot spots from burning the crust, and briefly covering the paella at the end of cooking traps steam that encourages any underdone grains at the top to finish cooking.