Before I went to work at a restaurant in Italy, I had heard of risotto, but I didn't really know what it was. Quite soon into my apprenticeship, though, I learned. I noticed Yolanda, the head cook, returning frequently to a simmering pot on the stove. "Cosa fai?" I asked. "Risotto!" she snapped back, annoyed at so obvious a question. Yolanda finished the risotto with a spoonful of grated Parmigiano, ladled a taste into a bowl, and set it before me with a brusque "Dai, mangia!" I had never tasted anything like it.
And there isn't anything quite like risotto, a creamy, luxurious rice dish that you get by toasting hard-grained rice in a little butter, stirring in chopped vegetables and other ingredients, and adding hot stock bit by bit, cooking slowly until the rice is al dente. Risotto's consistency can vary from something resembling a thick soup to a creamy porridge. It can be as simple as rice, white wine, stock, and a little Parmesan cheese stirred in at the end, or more elaborate, studded with vegetables, seafood, or meat. Once you've mastered the basic technique, you can make an endless variety of risotti.
Risotto needs a high-starch rice and a heavy pot
There are no shortcuts to risotto (and if anyone ever comes out with an instant version, don't buy it). Real risotto needs gradual cooking and the right rice.
Use rice labeled arborio superfino, vialone nano, or carnaroli. All three are plump grains with a high starch content, which is what gives risotto its characteristic chewiness and creaminess. Arborio is easiest to find, and I think the easiest to work with. Vialone nano is starchier and makes a denser, creamier risotto, but it goes from al dente to overcooked in a flash. Carnaroli is the hardest of the three and takes the longest to cook. It's the best choice if you must cook risotto ahead of time, the way many restaurants do.
Choose a heavy pan with a nonreactive lining. A thick bottom and sides help distribute the heat evenly and prevent burning; I often use an All-Clad pot. A stainless-steel, anodized-aluminum, or enameled interior won't react with high-acid ingredients such as white wine or tomato, which can turn gray in aluminum or unlined cast-iron pans.
A wooden spoon works best for stirring risotto. It's gentler on the rice than a metal spoon, and it won't scratch the inside of your pan.
The first steps lay down layers of flavor
While some risotto recipes begin with a sauté of aromatic vegetables (known as a soffrito), into which you stir the raw rice, I prefer to start off with the rice.
Toasting the rice in melted butter keeps it from getting mushy. This brief step is very important. It creates a shell around each grain, allowing the grain to slowly absorb moisture without getting soggy or bursting open like a kernel of popcorn. You'll end up with a risotto that's creamy, but where each grain maintains its own shape, rather than being mushy.
Add the chopped vegetables for a sweet, mellow flavor. Adding onion or garlic early, along with any other raw ingredients that require lengthy cooking (such as sausage or mushrooms), ensures that both their flavor and texture will blend well with the rice.
White wine adds a touch of acidity and deepens flavor. It's important to add the wine before the stock, because direct contact with the bottom of the hot pot will help burn off the alcohol, leaving only the wine's subtler flavor. A simple, dry wine works best; avoid those that are woody or sweet. While the recipes here use white wine, there's another whole group of risotti that depend on red wine.
Toast the rice in the butter just until the rice just begins to pop, about 1 minute.
Sauté the onions and any other vegetables until soft and just translucent, about 2 minutes.
Hot stock is the key to creamy risotto
What sets risotto apart from all other rice dishes is that it's not just rice mixed with other ingredients, but a perfect marriage of the two. Hot stock serves as the melding agent, releasing the rice's starch and making it creamy.
Use aromatic, unsalted stock. The stock should not be too concentrated or flavorful. During cooking, you'll reduce the stock to just a few tablespoons, which will intensify its flavors and the flavors of any added seasonings, especially salt. If you taste the stock and you want to eat more, it's too concentrated and will overpower the risotto. I prefer using homemade stock, but if you must use canned, make it low-sodium.
The stock must be simmering. Adding hot stock is the only way that the rice will cook thoroughly. Hot stock keeps the temperature at a more constant level, ensuring even, continuous cooking.
Add the stock in small batches. Rice loves to soak up liquid; it's the gradual addition of stock and slow cooking that gives you the creamy result unique to great risotto. Adding all the cooking liquid at once would be more like boiling or steaming the rice—which is okay, but it's not risotto.
When the pan looks this dry, it's time to ladle in just enough stock to cover the rice.
Don't flood the pan; add just enough stock to cover the rice.
Constant stirring isn't needed
I've heard people swear that you have to stir the risotto in the same direction without stopping or it will be ruined, and that constant stirring releases more of the rice's starch. I've found neither to be true. In fact, risotto doesn't need constant attention during its twenty-minute cooking time. You'll just need to check on the pan every few minutes, give the rice a stir to keep it from sticking, and add more stock.
To test for doneness, take a bite. When the rice is cooked, it will have just about doubled in volume. Each grain will be plumped but not broken open. Take one grain and bite it in half; it should be chewy and resilient. Look at the other half. If there's a tiny white pin-dot in the very center of the grain, it means that the risotto has the proper al dente quality.
Use a "shake test" to check for proper consistency. The other trick to checking risotto for doneness is making sure that it isn't too soupy or too porridgy. There are two schools of taste here: some prefer a looser, liquidy risotto; I like a thicker one.
After the risotto is cooked, you stir in more butter (if the recipe calls for it) and Parmigiano-Reggiano, taste for seasoning, and if you like, you can add more salt and a touch more stock.
To test the consistency, spoon a little into a bowl and shake it lightly from side to side. The risotto should spread out very gently of its own accord. If the rice just stands still, it's too dry, so add a little more stock. If a puddle of liquid forms around the rice, you've added too much stock. Spoon some liquid off, or just let the risotto sit for a few more seconds off the heat to absorb the excess stock.
While constant stirring is unnecessary, a vigorous stir at the end helps release the starch in the rice that makes risotto creamy.
Finally, swirl in any additional flavorings. A spinach and herb pesto gives this risotto a fresh flavor and a beautiful color.