What is the difference between Paella, Pilaf, Risotto, and Jambalaya
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The purpose of this page is to discuss the differences between the techniques used for making Paella, Pilaf, Risotto, Jambalaya, and Mexican Rice/Spanish Rice.

There is a lot of confusion about these techniques because the flavor in all of them is created, in large part, by the grains absorbing the Brodo (the cooking liquid which is usually Stock with a little Wine) and because the Internet has a lot of wrong information.

We assure you that they are not all the same dish and not all made the same way. That being said, they all have been around for centuries. As creative chefs will, many have used their ingenuity and Flair to customize and personalize “their” versions. The results often blur the lines and distinctions between the different techniques. We don’t intend to start a war over blurred lines. At Smart Kitchen our goal is to teach the techniques and rules so that we know how and where to improvise and modify.

So, let’s talk about Paella, Pilaf, Risotto, Jambalaya, and Mexican Rice. First of all, these dishes that we associate with Rice are actually not just Rice dishes but, in fact, different cooking techniques. They can be performed with various types of Grains and even with Pasta.

The primary resulting differences of each technique are in texture, taste, appearance, and mouth feel. Most of them (Pilaf, Jambalaya, and Mexican Rice) yield an outcome where the Finished Cooked grains are Al Dente and remain separate and distinct. One of them (Risotto) is cooked to a soupy or creamy consistency. Paella can go either way and be properly cooked soupy or as mounds of individual grains with a slightly toasted bottom layer (the Soccorat).

How do these dishes turn out so differently even when using what appears to be many of the same ingredients as inputs? One of the major differences between the dishes is the type of preferred Rice used to make each dish.

Long Grain White Rice is a Starchy Rice and yields fluffy, individuated grains when cooked. Mexican Rice, Rice Pilaf, and Jambalaya work best with Long Grain White Rice.

To get the creamy consistency of a Risotto, there needs to be Gelatinization of significant quantities of the starch Amylopectin, which causes Sticky Rice to be sticky. Medium Grain Rice, which has a moderate amount of Amylopectin is the best choice for Risotto. Paella, which may be soupy or drier, also works well with Medium Grain Rice.

Starting with the right Rice type really helps your whole dish move in the proper direction. The other major differences between the techniques is how the grains are cooked and handled. We will detail the broad strokes of each technique in the paragraphs below. The specifics of how to use each technique are covered in the relevant Exercises on Smart Kitchen. 

Pilaf: In a most basic and classic Rice Pilaf (the link goes to our Exercise on Pilaf) the Long Grain Rice (or other grains) are simply Simmered in a seasoned or flavored Stock. The best results are achieved by Simmering the ingredients in a covered pot/pan in the oven so that none of the grains on the bottom become overcooked and none of the Simmering Liquid is lost to evaporation. Saffron is a Spice often associated with Pilafs.

Other ingredients (Meat or Vegetables) can also be cooked in the Simmering Liquid alongside the Rice. The resultant outcome should be fluffy with dry distinct grains. Some chefs/cooks have upgraded their Pilafs to include Browning the grains in a Fat (potentially with an Aromatic such as Onion) before Simmering. This is an optional, tasty step but not part of the “textbook” definition. In fact, the first Pilafs predated “Browning.”

Jambalaya: Jambalaya is the New World’s attempt to make a Paella without a strong local source of Saffron. Essentially, a Jambalaya is a Stew of Tomato and your favorite available ingredients to which Stock and Rice are added. The Rice cooks in the stew and absorbs the excess liquids, yielding a moist but individuated Rice grain.

In a Jambalaya, any number of Raw ingredients are Browned/cooked in a Stock Pot or Sauté Pan which is then Deglazed so that the Fond can flavor the dish. Tomato Paste is cooked off (Pincé) and then the cornucopia of browned ingredients are added back into the pot or pan before the Simmering Liquid (Stock) is added. The mixture is then Simmered uncovered until the Rice is cooked Al Dente. The Jambalaya can be Finished with Cream or Butter.

Mexican Rice/Spanish Rice: Mexican Rice begins by Pan Frying the Long Grain White Rice before adding in the Garlic, Jalapeño, Tomato, Onionand Salt (the definitive Mexican Flavors). Essentially, a reverse-order Sofrito is created before the Stock is added as a Simmering Liquid and everything is then Simmered together, uncovered, in the oven for a half an hour or until the Rice becomes Al Dente. The Mexican Rice is Garnished with Cilantro (another quintessential Mexican flavor) and more Jalapeño.

Risotto: First of all, the thing that is never discussed, and which seems obvious in hindsight, is that Risottos are made with a ratio of almost twice as much liquid to Rice as compared to either Paella or Rice Pilaf. It really helps to keep them all straight: Risotto, the “creamy one,” has a much higher ratio of liquid to Rice (4 parts liquid to 1 part Rice) than the drier ones (which are only about 2 parts liquid and 1 part rice). The absorption of the extra Brodo (Italian for the added Broth/Stock) allows for the release of more Starch into the dish.

A basic Risotto begins by making a flavor base called a Soffritto. The usual ingredients are Butter or Olive Oil, Aliums (Onions, ShallotsGarlic, etc.), and Herbs. The Soffritto is used to coat the individual Medium Grain Rice kernels and unlock their Amylopectin (again the Starch that makes Sticky Rice sticky) so that it seeps out into the dish and Gelatinizes during the Tostatura and the Simmering.

The second phase of a Risotto is the Tostatura or “toasting” of the Rice grains in the Soffritto. During the Tostatura the Rice grains are cooked uncovered in a Sauce Pan or Sautoir. Uncovered, the moisture in the Brodo evaporates concentrating flavors in the Rice (in much the same way that a Reduction concentrates flavors in a Sauce). The uncovered Reduction is another reason that Risottos require more liquid than the other techniques on this page.

Once the Tostatura is completed (the grains are golden brown), the next phase is the notorious Simmering stage where pre-heated Stock is added (ladle by ladle) and the Risotto stirred, and stirred and stirred. The Simmering Phase can take 45 minutes or more. Any pre-cooked, Par-Cooked, or appropriately Raw ingredients can be added during this phase. Once the Simmering is completed, the final named phase, the Mantecatura can begin.

By the way, Risottos are typically simple and focused, like a Mushroom Risotto or a Shrimp Risotto. Classically, there is one headlining ingredient that lends its name to the dish with the other ingredients as the supporting cast.

The Mantecatura is a lot like Finishing and is the stage where all of the cream and cheese are added and stirred together.

Ultimately, the best results are obtained when using a good Risotto Rice. If the Rice is too stiff it won’t get creamy. If the Rice is too sticky then no individual grains will remain in the final dish.

Paella: The foremost component that distinguishes a Paella from the other Rice dishes mentioned here is the use of the uncovered Paella Pan (Paellera) on High Heat, which toasts the Rice over the burner(s) in a single, or at most, double layer.

Another major difference is the use of a Medium Grain Rice such as Bomba Rice or Calasparra Rice. The moderate amount of Amylopectin in these Rice allows the Paella’s texture to go either towards creamy/soupy or mounds of individual grains.

A flavor base, usually a Salmorra or Sofrito (the Spanish version of a Soffritto), is used in making Paella. Additionally, any added Raw ingredients, and there can be many, are normally cooked separately and in advance, before the heat is reduced and the Stock and Rice go into the Paellera. Once situated properly on the bottom of the Paella Pan, the Paella Rice is not stirred while it Simmers. Instead the Paella Pan is rotated to ensure even dispersal of the cooking heat. The final step in making a Paella is to return the burners to High Heat for the last few minutes of cook time to form a toasty crust from the bottom Rice layers (the Soccorat).