The luxurious, creamy texture of a good risotto depends on using the right kind of rice. Italians have several varieties of risotto rice from which to choose, but in North America our selection tends to be limited. Here, the most familiar and widely available risotto rice is arborio, but other equally good (some say better) varieties, like carnaroli, vialone nano, baldo, and Calriso, are becoming easier to find. If you like to make risotto, you might find a new favorite by experimenting with these other varieties.
All risotto rices have a couple of things in common. They have plump, medium to short grains and, more important, they all have a high proportion of amylopectin, a type of sticky starch that’s responsible for the trademark creamy texture of risotto. In contrast, long-grain rices, like basmati or Carolina rice, have a higher proportion of the less-sticky starch called amylose. This starch causes long-grain rices to cook up light and separate, which is why these rices don’t work well in risotto.
While similar on the macro level, the five risotto rices mentioned above vary in size and overall starch composition. When cooked, these variations translate into subtle, yet discernible, differences in the finished risotto.
Arborio: The most widely available risotto rice, arborio is typically wider and longer than carnaroli or vialone nano. It’s not as starchy and it absorbs liquid a little less well. Available in most supermarkets.
Baldo: A relatively new variety, baldo is most comparable to arborio in shape and starchiness. It’s the quickest cooking of the risotto rices. Available in specialty shops and from Kalustyans.
Calriso: A hybrid of Italian and California rice varieties, Calriso is also quite similar to arborio in cooking characteristics, though it expands a bit more. Calriso is a trademarked brand name. Available in specialty shops, and Whole Foods stores.
Carnaroli: Variously hailed as the “king” or the “caviar” of Italian rices, carnaroli is the preferred risotto rice in most regions of Italy except the Veneto. It’s said to produce the creamiest risotto, yet it’s more resistant to overcooking than arborio. Available in specialty shops, some supermarkets, and from Formaggio Kitchen.
Vialone nano: The preferred rice of the Veneto region, vialone nano can absorb twice its weight in liquid. With a starch content almost as high as carnaroli’s, it also produces a very creamy risotto. Available in specialty shops and from www.chefshop.com.