Risotto has a reputation as a risky endeavor requiring constant, slow stirring — and no shortcuts. But a little practice and the proper technique can open the door to countless variations of this creamy, Italian rice dish.
Taking The Risk Out Of Risotto
Susan Russo for NPR
One night many years ago, when we were newly married, my husband said he felt like having risotto for dinner. "That sounds great. Where would you like to go?" I asked him.
"No, homemade risotto," he replied.
I panicked. Homemade risotto? I had cooked plenty of homemade Italian-American dishes for him, such as lasagna and eggplant parmigiano, but never risotto. Risotto is risky. It requires constant, slow stirring, attention to detail and patience. No shortcuts are allowed. It was too much pressure to handle alone.
"OK," I said. "As long as you do the stirring."
It was an early lesson in marriage and risotto: shared responsibilities.
Risotto is an Italian rice dish that uses a specific type of rice and cooking technique. Rice is first toasted, then cooked in hot liquid that is slowly added until it is fully absorbed, creating a lusciously creamy risotto.
In the 14th century, a plump, round rice that would become the main ingredient for risotto was cultivated in the Po Valley in northern Italy, where the climate and soil were ideal. In fact, arborio rice, traditionally used for risotto, is named after the town of Arborio in the Po Valley.
While risotto refers to a method of cooking rice that has evolved over centuries, food historians often cite risotto alla Milanese as the prototype for what we call risotto today. This risotto, cooked with saffron, first appeared in the early 19th century.
A perfect risotto starts with the perfect rice, and there are three main varieties from which to choose: arborio, vialone nano and carnaroli. All three are high in amylopectin, a starch that dissolves in the cooking process, giving risotto its characteristic creaminess and slightly clingy texture.
Arborio, the best-known rice for risotto in the U.S., has a slightly larger grain that allows it to easily absorb liquid, resulting in a creamy texture. It is widely available at U.S. specialty markets and online. Look for rice labeled "superfino," which indicates a higher starch content and, ultimately, superior risotto.
Vialone nano has a plump grain that makes it firmer than arborio after being cooked. Though popular in the Veneto region of Italy, it is not as prevalent in U.S. markets, but is available online.
Carnaroli is prized for its delicate flavor and satisfyingly firm, yet creamy texture when cooked. Like vialone nano, it is not as common in U.S. markets as arborio, but is available online, often at a higher price than arborio.
Risotto cannot be made from long-grain rice or minute rice; neither will produce the appropriate texture or flavor.
To make basic risotto, you'll need a wide, shallow, heavy-bottomed pan and a wooden spoon. In a separate saucepan, start by heating plenty of stock — generally 3 1/2 cups of stock to 1 cup of rice. I always heat a little extra in case I run out of liquid. Hot stock is essential, as cold stock will result in hard, undercooked grains. Homemade stock is preferable, but not always practical. Store-bought low-sodium vegetable stock works well for most risottos. Otherwise, match the type of stock to the risotto you're making, such as beef stock for hearty meat risotto.
Most risottos start with sauteed onions for flavor. Heat butter and/or olive oil and cook the onions until tender and translucent, but not brown, about 3 minutes.
Next, toast the rice for one to two minutes in the fat-and-onion mixture, until it is slightly translucent. Coating the rice with fat prevents it from absorbing the liquid too quickly and creates a more tender risotto.
Once the rice is toasted, add wine, which will be quickly absorbed by the rice, infusing it with the wine's essence.
Now it's time to stir. It's debatable whether continuous stirring is necessary. Some risotto purists insist on it. If, however, you don't like stirring constantly, rest assured that occasional stirring still results in wonderfully creamy risotto.
The key is to gently simmer the rice while stirring and to gradually add hot stock to the rice, making sure the liquid is completely absorbed before adding more. This allows the rice to slowly absorb the liquid and to slowly release its starch, which creates a creamy, not gummy texture. Risotto generally takes 18 minutes to cook, but may vary slightly depending on your stove and pan. When stirring, be sure to incorporate all of the risotto, even along the edges of the pan, to prevent it from sticking.
The only reliable way to know when risotto is finished is to taste it. Cooked risotto should be al dente — that is, fully cooked, yet still somewhat firm to the bite. If you prefer a softer, soupier risotto, simply add an extra one-half to one cup of liquid.
The final step, called mantecare — "to stir together" in Italian — finishes the risotto. The cooked risotto is removed from the heat, and a knob of butter and some freshly grated Parmesan cheese are quickly stirred in. This adds silkiness and flavor, and helps bind the ingredients together. (For seafood risotto, though, skip the cheese.) Serve risotto immediately, preferably on warm plates.
Great risotto is all about technique. Once you master it, you'll be free to experiment with countless seasonal flavors. Enjoy spring and summer risottos featuring tender vegetables such as asparagus, English peas and zucchini, and fresh-flavored herbs such as mint and basil. Robust autumn and winter risottos made with ingredients such as sweet acorn squash, earthy Swiss chard, savory meats, and full-bodied herbs such as sage and rosemary are especially appealing. Of course, risottos with just butter and freshly grated Parmesan cheese or a basic marinara sauce are as simple as they are satisfying.
But don't stop there — risotto makes a luscious dessert, too. Made with hot milk, sugar and your choice of spices, dessert risotto can range from humble to sophisticated. Swirl in some dark chocolate and sprinkle with toasted almonds for a simple indulgence. Or for a touch of elegance, try risotto pudding topped with wine-poached fruit such as fresh figs, apples or pears.
I've learned some valuable lessons about risotto:
• Don't experiment with making risotto when you've invited your new boss or girlfriend over for dinner. Practice really does make perfect, and there are some people you don't want to practice on.
• Don't try to make risotto for 14 people. It's just too hard to manage, and the consistency usually suffers. Risotto for two to four is better.
• Don't leave the responsibility for stirring to your husband when a football game is on. One reviewed play can quickly lead to an entire pan of scorched risotto.
• If you're running late for a dinner party, don't try to speed up the cooking process by raising the heat on the risotto. You'll end up with rice that is raw on the inside and sticky on the outside. (Crunching should never be heard when your guests are eating risotto.)
• Serve risotto immediately. Sitting for even 10 minutes on the counter will adversely affect the texture, making it clumpy and gooey. If it sits even longer, then you might just be able to use it to glue that piece of loose wallpaper that's been hanging in your bathroom.
Now when my husband says he feels like having risotto for dinner, I don't panic. I hope you won't, either.