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.