The “sofrito” (“sofregit” in Catalan) is one of the basic building blocks of food throughout Spain. Whether you are making a paella, garbanzos Castellano, fideuá, callos Madrileña, an empanada Gallega, or countless other dishes throughout the country, you need to start with a sofrito. In the Galician language, there is even a special word, “zaragallada,” for the sofrito used in an empanada filling.
Some ingredients change from one dish to another, but a sofrito always starts with onions. Sometimes garlic is added with the onions. One or more different peppers – bell peppers, piquillos, ñoras, chorizeros – are often, but not always, added. Tomatoes are another very common addition to the sofrito.
The general technique for a sofrito is always the same, though the details change from dish to dish and household to household. Start with a medium-low flame, add a generous amount of fat, usually oil, then the onions. The onions are cooked down until they are meltingly soft, but not browned. If peppers are used, sometimes they are added and cooked down at the same time as the onions. Other times, the peppers aren’t added to the onions until the onions are already melted down. When the peppers have cooked to a meltingly soft texture (again, without browning), the tomatoes – if they are part of the sofrito – are finally added. The tomatoes are cooked down slowly, as well, and when the entire sofrito has gotten to an almost paste like consistency, it is done.
Sofritos are generally seasoned with salt during cooking. Sometimes black pepper, pimentón de la vera, and other spices such as cumin can be added, as well.
In many dishes, a “picada” is added when the sofrito is finished. A picada is a highly flavorful paste, often containing ingredients with thickening power. It’s traditionally ground up using a mortar and pestle, though a small food processor works great. A picada pretty much always starts with garlic, and often (not always) contains parsley. Saffron is a common picada component. Often a small piece of stale bread which has been fried, gets added to help thicken a sauce or stew liquid. Almonds and hazlenuts are regularly added, and even chicken or rabbit livers often show up in a picada.
These days, many people will add a little bit of whatever cooking liquid is to be used in the dish to the picada and use a hand blender to grind it up. This is especially common when the picada includes bread for thickening.
The picada is generally added right when the sofrito is finished. It is stirred in and cooked out for a couple minutes, at which point the bulk of the liquid is added to the pan. This liquid could be some kind of wine, stock, or even water.
You will get intimately familiar and comfortable with the sofrito and picada as you begin to learn food from around Spain.