Risotto is a specific and unique method of cooking rice. A basic risotto is a blank canvas for adding a wide variety of flavorings: mushrooms, seafood, poultry, meat, vegetables, nuts and even fruit. The rice is briefly toasted in fat and then a splash of wine is added. Once the wine is absorbed, ladles of hot broth are slowly added, stirring after each addition of liquid. The result is an amazing comfort food, where each grain of rice is coated in a cream-like sauce. Paul Bertolli aptly describes risotto as "a marriage of of rice and broth."
Risotto is Not Hard to Make
Risotto is not hard to make, but risotto does require focus. You can't walk away from a pot of cooking risotto, at least not for more than a minute or two. Preparing risotto takes about 30 minutes. For your first time, stay focused and just make risotto. Once you get the hang of it, you will find you can make other dishes simultaneously.
Risotto Style: Wet vs. Dry
There are two styles of risotto: wet and dry.
Wet-style risotto is native to the Venneto and is called all'onda, which means wavy. The wet style of risotto should be liquid enough so that it is almost pourable. If you are trying to make a wet-style risotto, use carnoroli or viarone nano rice, and use a pan with less surface area.
Drier-style risotto comes from the Lombardy, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna regions of Italy. It has a stickier texture and can be plated rather than served in a bowl. Arborio rice is the best rice for dryer style risotto.
For both styles of risotto, the broth should meld with the starch from the rice to incapsulate and bathe each grain of rice.
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- A large, wide, heavy pot such as a Le Creuset enameled cast iron Dutch oven is perfect. These are investment pans that are not inexpensive. If Le Creuset is not in your budget, Lodge makes a good, significantly less expensive Dutch Oven.
- A large stock pot, with a capacity of at least 2 quarts of stock to make 2 cups of risotto rice.
- A ladle or a metal cup for adding the stock. I personally use a 12-ounce latte milk frothing pitcher instead of a ladle, but that is a personal quirk.
- A wooden spoon, preferably with a straight edge, or you can use a true risotto spoon, that has a hole in the center of the spoon. The hole is particularly useful when beating in butter to finish the risotto.
The Basic Risotto Ingredients
Not just any rice will do. Risotto requires a round, short grain, high starch rice. Arborio rice is widely available in the U.S. Carnoroli and Vialone Nano are also used. If your grocery store does not carry risotto rice, you can purchase it online at Amazon. Never wash your risotto rice, as the starch is essential for creating risotto.
You can use olive oil, butter or a combination of the two to start your risotto. Regardless of which fat you use to start, risotto is traditionally finished off the stove by beating in cold pats of butter, along with parmesan cheese. One of my daughters doesn't eat dairy, so I make her risotto without butter or cheese and it is still delicious. If you are not dairy restricted, I recommend you finish your risotto with a bit of butter.
Onions & Garlic
Regular onions, leeks, shallots or a combination of the above can be used. Garlic is often used too. If you are adding garlic, sauté your onions first, then add your garlic. This will prevent the garlic from burning. Some recipes call for just a couple tablespoons of onion, leek or shallot per cup of rice. Other recipes call for as much as a half onion per cup of rice. Vary the quantity of the onions and garlic to your preference.
A small amount of wine is often used as the first liquid added to the toasted rice, but it is not a requirement. The wine adds flavor and acidity, and possibly helps tenderize the rice a bit. White wine is usually used, but a red wine will add color and robust flavor to a risotto. Most recipes call for between 1/4 and 1/3 cup of wine per cup of rice. Don't obsess over the amount. Just add a splash. Sherry, vermouth madeira or marsala can also be used. Some recipes call for an additional small splash of wine near the end of the cooking process for flavor. Some cooks advocate heating the wine so as to not shock the rice with cold wine. I don't bother with this extra step. A friend of mine just pours himself a generous pour of wine to drink while he makes risotto and then tips some of his glass into the pan.
Like any dish, risotto is always better with homemade stock. But the reality is few of us home cooks ever make homemade stock, so store bought will do. Better a risotto with store-bought stock than no risotto at all. You can use a vegetable, poultry, seafood, veal or beef stock. Use a stock that complements your other ingredients. You will need about 3-4 cups of stock per cup of rice.
You can put virtually anything in a risotto: vegetables, herbs, seafood, meat, nuts, etc... A good risotto should not be too complicated as you want the flavoring ingredients to enhance and not overpower the rice. Less is often more. You will find a few well-chosen ingredients makes a great risotto. The flavorings are usually precooked before you add them to the rice. If you have some interesting leftovers, they are often good candidates to flavor your risotto and clean out your fridge at the same time.
Dairy is used to finish the risotto. Most, but not all risottos are finished with cheese. I'm a cheese fan, so I finish my risotto with cheese. Parmigiano-reggiano or pecorino romano are traditional, but a variety of cheeses can be used. You can use a sprinkling of cheese to finish or you can hit it hard with as much as 1/2 cup grated cheese per cup of rice. In general I hit the cheese pretty hard, but it does depend on what your other ingredients are and what kind of cheese you are using. Blue cheese, in particular, can be potent. So when adding cheese, go light, taste and add more if needed. Always use a high quality cheese.
Butter is typically used to finish risotto, particularly in restaurants where chefs have learned a little butter makes almost everything taste better. I use butter in my risotto, except if I am cooking for someone who is dairy-restricted.
The cheese and butter are added off the heat. Use a wooden spoon and beat with vigor.
Some recipes call for an addition of cream to finish a risotto. Risotto's creamy texture comes from the release of starch from the rice grains as liquid is slowly stirred into the rice. If you use proper risotto technique cream is not necessary to achieve the creamy texture . I don't use cream in my risotto.
Two things are unique about the method for making risotto, compared to other rice dishes:
- The risotto liquid is added gradually, where as most rice dishes have you add all the liquid at once.
- Risotto is stirred, nearly continuously, where as most rice preparations should not be stirred at all while the rice cooks.
Once you have learned the basic risotto technique you will find you do not need a recipe. Here are the basic steps using 1 cup of rice, which is enough to feed 2 - 3 people:
1. Bring a stock pot of 4-5 cups of broth to a near boil and then immediately turn down to simmer.
2. In your dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pan, sauté your onions, leeks or shallots in olive oil and/or butter until they are soft and fragrant. Do not brown.
3. Add your garlic, stirring so it does not burn.
4. Add your rice and stir to coat each grain of rice with hot fat. Cook on medium heat for about 3-5 minutes. The rice will start to appear translucent around the edges, but with a solid white center.
5. If you are using wine, now is the time to add all but a tablespoon or two. Slowly pour 1/4 to 1/3 cup wine into hot rice and stir until wine is absorbed.
6. Once the wine is absorbed, slowly add the hot stock, a ladleful at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon after each addition, until the rice absorbs each ladle of stock. Continue adding stock a ladleful at a time allowing the rice to fully absorb the stock before another ladle is added. This process will take about 20 minutes.
7. Taste your risotto to determine when it is done. If the rice has a starchy crunch when tasted it is not done yet. Cook until al dente, or firm but chewy.
8. If you are adding additional ingredients (vegetables, seafood, etc.) add them when the rice is 90% done.
9. When the rice is done, turn off the heat and finish by vigorously stirring in your cheese and butter.
10. Serve your risotto promptly. A swirl of good quality olive oil or truffle oil and a sprig of fresh herbs is a nice finishing touch to individual servings.
11. Alternatively, your sautéed ingredients can be mounded on top of a basic risotto. I like to do this with mushroom risotto. I saute a mixture of fresh and dried mushrooms, and serve the risotto with a scoop of hot mushrooms.
- Do not make more than about 2 to 2 1/2 cups of risotto at a time and only if you have a 7 quart pan or larger. If your pan is smaller, limit yourself to 1 - 1 1/2 cups of rice.
- Use the best quality olive oil, cheese and flavoring ingredients as you can afford.
- Most people will tell you risotto must be eaten promptly. It is great eaten promptly, but I always enjoy the leftovers the next day.
Here are our favorite risotto recipes: