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10 Quintessential Spanish Food Ingredients

From tapas to paella, traditional Spanish food ingredients are at the heart of all spectacular Spanish cuisine. While Spanish food varies dramatically by region and season (check out our series on traditional Catalan, Basque, Valencian, Galician, Andalusian, and Asturian cuisine), a dozen or so ingredients have starring roles again and again. 

Spanish Ingredients List

Spanish Food Ingredient #1: Paprika (Pimentón)

Spanish paprika (pimentón) — a type of dried and ground capsicum — is used liberally in Spanish cooking to flavour and provide colour and depth to all kinds of dishes. In fact, modern Spain produces and consumes the most paprika (pimentón) in the world.

The original pimentón arrived in Spain from the Americas with Christopher Columbus in 1493. These capsicums were first cultivated by monks, who discovered the red fruit could be smoked, dried and ground into a delicious spice. 

Now, paprika is a ubiquitous condiment throughout the country. Paprika comes in dulce (mild and sweet), ahumado (smoked) and picante (spicy hot) flavours. This ingredient is added to stews and soups, sprinkled on eggs, and used to create dressings and dry marinades. Paprika is also an essential ingredient in the creation of the classic Spanish sausage, chorizo. 

Spanish Food Ingredient #2: Olive Oil

Spanish olive oil, known in Spanish as ‘aceite de oliva’, is a holy grail ingredient in Spanish cooking. From light and fruity to spicy, smooth and intense, Spanish olive oils come in an incredible array of flavours: a testament to the more than 200 varieties of olives grown on native shores. 

Olive oil can be brushed onto bread (pan) to create tapas, mixed with vinegar and salt to create a salad dressing, and added to soups (gazpacho) and stews (chilindrón and pisto). Lots of Spanish foods are fried in it (paella, churros), and it is even used in creating sweet baked desserts like olive oil cake. Olive oil is popularly used by locals to conserve anchovies, olives and capsciums. Last but not least, it adds a divine finishing touch to churrasco dishes, for example, drizzled over grilled meats or fried fish. 

Spanish Food Ingredient #3: Olives

In Spain, olives are often devoured on their own as a snack or in a tapa, where they can be found stuffed with anchovies or marinated with olive oil, garlic and lemon. The most popular Spanish olives include the cornicabra (slightly bitter), the arbequina (small and fruity), the picual (sweet with a light, bitter flavour), and the gordal (large and juicy). Olives also feature as a main ingredient in many chicken and fish dishes. 

Spanish Food Ingredient #4: Saffron

Did you know this luxurious, delicate spice — a key ingredient in traditional paella, stews, soups and sauces — can be more expensive than gold by weight? Painstakingly harvested by hand, it takes more than 10,000 purple crocus flowers to create 30 grams of dried saffron.

First brought to Spain by Moorish conquerors in the 700s, saffron is characterised by rich crimson colour, heady aroma and intense depth of flavour. It bestows dishes with a golden yellow-orange colour and a distinctive sweet yet grassy flavour. 

Spanish Food Ingredient #5: Garlic

Whether it’s pickled, marinated, rubbed on bread, turned into a creamy aioli, fried, roasted or stewed, you can find garlic (called ajo) in almost every traditional Spanish dish. 

Spanish Food Ingredient #6: Jamón

From free-range Ibérico acorn-fed ham (jamón ibérico de bellota) to classic Serrano ham from white pigs (jamón serrano), jamón is a delicacy that lends a rich, robust flavour to a variety of Spanish dishes. Most often, jamón is enjoyed thinly sliced as a cold tapa alongside hearty, rustic bread and a cold beer. It also makes an exceptional addition to stews, scrambled eggs, sauteed vegetables, and cold tomato soup (salmorejo). The most sought-after jamón, ‘ibérico de bellota’ — made from black Iberian pigs are fattened on autumn acorns — has a delicious, nutty aftertaste that lingers long after it’s been swallowed. 

Spanish Food Ingredient #7: Sherry Vinegar

One of the world’s most prized and potent vinegars, sherry vinegar or ‘vinagre de Jerez’ is so unique and essential to Spanish cuisine that it has its own ‘Denominación de Origen‘, a protected status guaranteed by EU law. 

Traditionally, sherry vinegar was created by fermenting leftover sherry wine in barrels for an average of six years. Depending on how long the vinegar has spent maturing in a barrel, it receives a classification: vinagre de Jerez (minimum of six months), vinagre de Jerez reserva (minimum of two years) and vinagre de Jerez gran reserva (minimum of 10 years). The longer the sherry vinegar is matured, the denser, darker and smoother it becomes. 

Sherry vinegar’s blend of deep, smooth woody undertones and sharp acidity brings a balanced acidity to complex dishes, making it ideal as a flavour enhancer for meat marinades, sauces, vinaigrettes, salad dressings and gazpacho. 

Spanish Food Ingredient #8: Bread (Pan)

Like in many European cuisines, rustic, country-style bread (pan) is a staple food in Spanish cooking, enjoyed with every meal. Stale bread is never discarded. Instead, it enjoys a second life creating texture in soups (gazpacho), as crumbs for coating croquettes, and can be added to smoked paprika and chorizo to make the stuffing. 

Spanish Food Ingredient #9: Anchovies

As any lover of Spanish tapa knows, fresh anchovies (called boquerones) are a staple snack, delicious when fried or marinated vinegar, coated in olive oil, or skewered with capsicum and olives. Canned and salted anchovies also make a wonderful salad dressing. 

Spanish Food Ingredient #10: Salt Cod

Salting cod (bacalao), a tradition enjoyed by Basque and Galician fishermen for centuries, has been woven into the culinary fabric of northern Spain. Salt cod is now a favourite dish across Spain, with specific cuts used to create different dishes. For example, cod loin is regarded as the best cut for making bacallà amb mel (salt cod with honey), while the delicate, tasty jowls are wonderful dipped in flour, egg and deep-fried to make bite-sized tapas, topped with chopped parsley, garlic and lemon juice. Even the cod’s tail and offcuts are often salvaged for fish stock, or breaded and fried for tapas. 

Ready to try some delicious and authentic Spanish food right here in Brisbane? Book a table at Moda Restaurant today!

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