Cooking Spanish cuisine at home is simple with the right ingredients. Stock a few high-quality items in your pantry, and you’ll be well on your way to recreating the country’s authentic flavors and classic dishes in your own kitchen.
For inspiration, we talked to Tanya Booth, a partner in The Spanish Table, a store specializing in the cooking of Spain with locations in Seattle, Berkeley, Santa Fe and Mill Valley. Her shops are filled with cookbooks, paella pans, wine and, of course, food staples. Keep reading for her tips on building a Spanish pantry, plus creative ideas for using your goodies.
Olive oil is the primary cooking oil used in Spanish kitchens — they don’t even use much butter. Every table in Spain is set with carafes of olive oil and sherry vinegar for dipping bread and drizzling over food.
“When I lived in Spain and cooked over there, I had to get over my initial shock of using so much olive oil!” says Tanya. “Spaniards use it in copious quantities.”
Look for: Oil made from Arbequina olives has a delicious fruity flavor, perfect for salads and dipping. Arbequina olives are small, often served in Spanish bars and restaurants for snacking. On the other end of the spectrum is Picual olive oil, which comes from olives with the highest level of antioxidants. It has a peppery bite, notes of grass, and a stronger flavor. No matter which characteristics you prefer, seek out high-quality extra-virgin olive oil.
Use it: Saute sofrito (a base of chopped garlic, onions, tomato and peppers) in olive oil when making paella or beans, or cook potatoes in it for a tortilla. Drizzle it over a salad, pan con tomate or vegetables for finishing. In Cataluna, it’s even drizzled on top of melted chocolate on toast for a sweet treat.
“Sherry vinegar has a unique, nutty quality,” says Tanya. Along with olive oil, it’s commonly used for dipping and dressing salads.
Look for: Younger sherry vinegars have a bright acidity. Older vinegars, aged for 25 or even 50 years, are darker, slightly more viscous and sweeter — but not at all viscous and sweet like a balsamic, Tanya notes.
Use it: Use young vinegars for every day cooking, and reserve aged varieties for special preparations, like a salad with figs and manchego.
Walk into a Spanish bar and order a beer, and you’ll be greeted with a plate of olives. Sometimes they’re in a brine and other times marinated in house with herbs, lemon and orange peel, garlic and vinegar. “Each restaurants has its own recipe,” says Tanya.
She also notes that Spanish olives tend not to be as salty as ones you’ll find in other parts of the world. “The first flavor you get is the fruit, not the salt.”
Look for: The most common variety is the Manzanilla olive, which are deep and fruity, with a texture that’s neither too soft nor too firm. Arquina olives make the prized oil described above, and Empeltre olives are black and mild, like a French Niçoise.
Use it: Manzanilla olives are perfect for stuffing — with anchovies, chorizo, jamon or tuna. Most Spaniards just enjoy olives as a snack, but they are also a key component of an ensalada mixta, a salad with white asparagus, tuna and olive oil.
“A big trend in Spain right now is bars that focus on fish in cans,” says Tanya. “You’ll go in, and they’ll have giant tins of high-quality canned seafoods. You order and they dress the seafood up on a plate with vinegar, garlic, parsley, bread, and sometimes roasted red peppers.”
Look for: Anchovies and boquerones, or vinegar-cured anchovies, are popular in tapas, but you can also find other fish such as tuna and even octopus.
Use it: These items are most often used to create tapas. Tanya describes one with chopped tomato and sweet white onion, topped with boquerones or tuna, fresh olive oil, a splash of vinegar and parsley. Octopus may be served with smoked paprika, sea salt, olive oil and potatoes.
Vegetables preserved in jars — such as peppers and asparagus — are commonly used both for tapas and salads.
Look for: Roasted piquillo peppers have a distinctive full flavor. The best fat, white asparagus spears are a specialty of the Navarra region.
Use it: Piquillo peppers are great for stuffing because of their hefty size; try crab or tuna salad. Tanya also adds them to paella, bean and lentil dishes, and braised oxtail. Asparagus are simply dressed with olive oil and eaten out of hand with a napkin. They are also delicious when lightly dressed in a salad.
“Beans are used quite a bit in Spain, and traditionally they’re cooked with meat,” says Tanya.
Look for: Garbanzo beans, lentils, white beans and baby favas are all common in Spanish cuisine.
Use it: Beans and lentils are typically cooked with chorizo, a ham hock or other meats, and little else. You may also see tripe or salt cod with garbanzos.
Pimentón, or smoked paprika, is only made in one place: the hills of Spain’s Gredos mountains. Long, skinny red peppers are slowly dried and smoked over big oak fires in traditional smoking houses, turned by hand in a 12-day process. The peppers are ground over and over again to create a fine powder.
“It adds a meaty quality to a lot of foods,” says Tanya.
Look for: There are three varieites of pimentón: sweet, bittersweet and hot. Bittersweet is made 100% from the peppers grown in that region, while the sweet and hot varieties have other peppers added in to create the desired flavors.
Use it: Tanya loves smoked paprika with roasted potatoes and sweet potatoes.
Some of the best saffron in the world is grown in La Mancha, near Madrid.
“It’s key in Spanish cooking,” says Tanya. “Some people avoid buying it because of the expense, but you don’t need much. It adds so much fragrance and flavor — not just color.”
Look for: Seek out high-quality, full-thread saffron.
Use it: Saffron is mainly used to make paella.
Made with ground nuts, peppers, smoked paprika and garlic, romesco sauce is a staple for so many dishes in Spain.
Look for: It’s simple to make romesco yourself, but you can also buy it prepared. Just be sure to check the ingredient list for preservatives or chemical additives.
Use it: Romesco is traditionally served with grilled spring onions in Cataluna. “They bring you gigantic plate of what look like skinny leeks, and you peel back the charred outer skin and eat it like asparagus,” says Tanya. “You wear a bib!” It also pairs well with grilled vegetables, sandwiches and fish, and it’s used as thickening agent in fish stews.