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Creating a Rich, Creamy Risotto

Fine Cooking Issue 50
Photos: Scott Phillips
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The Italian rice dish known as risotto is one of those foods that, like soufflés and puff pastry, can strike fear in the hearts of even the most stalwart cooks. But while some of these anxieties are well founded—soufflés can fall, puff pastry can fail to rise—not much can really go wrong with risotto. After all, it’s just rice.

Add liquid gradually and stir, stir, stir

The main difference between the risotto technique and other rice cooking techniques is that for risotto, the liquid is added gradually and the rice is stirred often during cooking, as opposed to adding all the liquid at once and not stirring. The frequent stirring is what helps release the starch from the rice to give risotto its creamy texture.

To make risotto: First, cook aromatic ingredients such as onion and garlic in a little fat, and then add the rice. Stir the rice for a few minutes in the fat to toast it a little. Next, pour in your cooking liquid—usually broth—one or two cups at a time (depending on how much risotto you’re making) and stir often (not constantly) until the rice feels cooked but not mushy when you nibble a grain. It takes about twenty minutes from the first addition of liquid to reach this stage. Keeping the liquid hot in a separate pot aids the process because the temperature of the risotto doesn’t drop every time you add more liquid. Once the rice is fully cooked, fold in whatever finishing ingredients you like. It’s that simple.

Choose the right rice for risotto

To achieve the proper texture and consistency of a risotto, use one of several medium- to short-grain Italian rice varieties. These rices have a different starch composition than longgrain rice, and it’s mainly the starch that determines the texture of the cooked rice. Long-grain rice cooks up light and fluffy with separate grains (the reason why it isn’t right for risotto). The Italian rices give off lots of glutinous starch as they cook, resulting in the creamy, thick, saucy consistency that’s the trademark of risotto, but they also remain slightly “toothy” in the center when cooked, making for an interesting textural contrast with the sauce.

Arborio is probably the best known and most widely available variety of risotto rice in North America, but other lesser-known Italian varieties, like carnaroli, vialone nano, and baldo, can also be found in some supermarkets and gourmet shops

Flavor your risotto in many ways

Beyond the decision of which rice to use, you also have lots of options for flavoring your risotto. Your first opportunity comes when you sweat your aromatics in fat at the beginning of the cooking process. Onion is pretty much universal in risottos (or risotti, in Italian), and garlic is common, too, but you can also add other long-cooking vegetables, dried herbs and spices, or cubes of meat or poultry. The fat you use affects flavor, too. Butter, olive oil, or the rendered fat from pork products like prosciutto, pancetta, or bacon are the best choices.

The cooking liquid is another big flavor component. Most of the liquid is usually chicken, fish, meat,or vegetable broth, but a small amount of wine (which should be at room temperature) is often added before the broth to give the risotto a slightly acidic tang. When red wine is used, it gives the risotto a beautiful reddish hue. For every one cup rice, you’ll generally need about three cups liquid, plus onehalf to one cup more to allow for evaporation and for final consistency adjustments.

Other ingredients, such as vegetables, fish, and shellfish can be added at various stages (depending on their individual cooking times) throughout the cooking process. And when your risotto is fully cooked, you can finish it off with other raw or cooked ingredients such as chopped tomatoes or duck confit, a handful of chopped fresh herbs, a grating of parmigiano reggiano, or perhaps a drizzle of truffle oil.

Making risotto ahead

Once risotto is fully cooked, it doesn’t hold well and should be served right away. If you want to make it ahead of time for a dinner party, cook it about two-thirds of the way, and then spread it on a baking sheet to cool and refrigerate it until later in the day. Then, about ten minutes before you’re ready to serve, return the risotto to the stovetop, add the remaining broth, and continue to simmer and stir until it’s fully cooked. The risotto may not be quite as creamy as one made all at once, but it will still be very good.


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