Risotto is an Italian rice dish, most popular in northern Italy. Traditionally, risotto is the name given to all recipes that use rice as the main component and are served as first dish in a traditional Italian lunch or dinner as usually pasta also is. When rice arrived in Italy six centuries ago from the Far East, it found an ideal place for cultivation in the Po river plain and during the Renaissance and gradually replaced rye, barley and millet for its ease of preparation and nutritious power. Its diffusion across the country gave rise to hundreds of recipes which contain components of different local cultures. But the founder of all risotti is the Milan risotto, also called saffron risotto.
Generally the rice is slowly cooked in stock, but other liquids can be used. What's described here is a basic risotto recipe. Grated or ground parmesan cheese is almost always sprinkled on top. It can be eaten as is, but risotto is generally enjoyed with one or two ingredients added. In Italy, risotto is, like pasta, usually served as first course, the second course being meat or fish.
- 400 grams (14 ounces) risotto rice (plump, medium grain rice that contains a lot of starch, the types Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone Nano are traditionally best)
- 1 onion
- 1 glass of dry white wine
- 25 grams (1 ounce) butter (a good rich butter is best)
- about a liter of stock/broth, but it's a good idea to have more than you need (as the amount needed is difficult to predict). What type of stock depends on the flavour you're trying to achieve, but since the flavour of the stock will become the main flavour of the dish, good stock is a wise investment. Canned is better than cubes or powder, home-made is usually best. Make sure the stock isn't too strong or too salty, as it will be greatly condensed. Make sure the stock is clear too, or the texture of the risotto will become gritty (The article on stock contains information on clarifying stock).
Make sure your stock is simmering before you begin. It's important that the temperature is as high as possible, without letting the stock boil. The surface of the stock should just be moving a little. A large thick pot is best for the risotto.
- Finely chop the onion and sweat it very gently (cook over medium heat, without letting it brown) in some butter or olive oil. This is known as a soffritto in Italy.
- Add the rice and cook until it has a transparent look (this shouldn't take long). Add some salt and pepper.
- Add the wine. A hot pan will cause the alcohol to evaporate more quickly (and create a nice dramatic effect), but make sure you don't burn the rice or the soffritto.
- As the wine cooks away you will see the remaining liquid getting thicker as it's absorbing the starch from the rice. When it’s more or less gone, add some stock. Do not add too much stock. The rice should never be submerged in stock. Keep stirring it and keep adding more stock as it cooks away. This should take about 15 to 20 minutes.
- Taste to see if the rice is done. The rice should be soft, but have enough bite to it to feel the individual grains of rice. The choice between a liquid risotto or a firmer one is a matter of personal preference.
When put on a plate, it should spread out slowly. If it sits still, it needs some more stock; if there's liquid coming from the risotto, it needs to cook down a bit more.
- Let it rest for about a minute
- Vigorously stir in the butter in small chunks at the time, taste to get the amount of butter right. Season with more salt and pepper to taste. This phase is called the mantecura.
- Serve immediately. Risotto won't keep beyond the meal, but rehydrating it with some soup or stock can yield edible results.
With risotto, practice makes perfect because there are many factors that influence the outcome. Experiment with several varieties of rice, choose the one you like best and then fine-tune the various parameters like cooking temperature, selection of the proper pot, the amount and timing of seasonings etc.
Notes, tips and variations
- This is only the most basic risotto recipe. Add ingredients only at the beginning (through the soffritto, when they need to cook with the rice) or at the very end in the mantecura (for ingredients that lose their flavour with too much cooking, such as herbs). If you want to use ingredients that require a very specific cooking time, like potatoes or broccoli, it's best to blanch them in advance, and add them to the risotto at the very end. It's very difficult to add them to the risotto halfway so that they will be cooked perfectly when the risotto is done. If you want the flavour of the stock to be present in these ingredients, blanch them in the stock. For some ingredients, like mushrooms, the cooking time isn't extremely important. These can simply be added to the risotto somewhere along the line.
- A common mistake in making risotto is to add too much of the extra ingredients. The star of the dish is the rice, and only very little else is needed.
- Ingredients added at the last moment will be laced with butter. This can have a negative impact on the effect of some delicate ingredients, like garden cress.
- Think of risotto as a way of making stock edible with a fork: the quality of the stock you use is the most important factor in the quality of your risotto.
- Use a different type of liquor to replace the white wine; vodka, whiskey, champagne and martini work well. Keep in mind that the color of the liquor will affect the rice. Using red wine will create a red risotto (which looks nice with fish or tomatoes). Rosé wine will make a pink/purple risotto, which looks nice with asparagus.
- Saffron added to the stock is risotto alla Milanese.
- Using large roasted breadcrumbs instead of parmesan cheese will create a nice contrast in texture with the risotto. Put the breadcrumbs on top of the risotto at the last minute and don't stir, or they will soak up too much moisture and lose their crunch.
- After step 3 you can move the contents into a rice cooker with the stock and left to its own devices to finish it off. The end result isn't quite as good, but the saving in effort makes it worthwhile.
- Left over risotto is not particularly nice reheated on its own. So as not to waste the leftovers, you can form day old risotto into cakes or patties, coat them in flour and shallow fry them in olive oil, making risotto cakes. This can be served with a salad.
A very quick risotto with parboiled rice
When really pressed for time, the following procedure will produce a reasonable semblance of risotto within ten minutes:
- Place a pot over strong heat and pour in the stock to boil. You will need twice as much stock as the rice to be cooked (e.g. two cups of stock for one cup of dry rice).
- Place a second pot over strong heat and drop in some butter.
- Once the butter in the first pot has melted, pour in the rice and start sautéing it, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon. The butter will soon start to froth. Extra seasonings can also be added at this point.
- By this time, the stock will have started boiling. Pour it into the pot with the rice (caution: this produces hot steam suddenly), stir well to make sure that no rice has stuck on the inside of the pot, cover the pot and switch off the heat.
- Leave alone for five to seven minutes, then serve.
- Mushroom risotto. Add mushrooms to the soffritto.
- Cashew nut and cucumber risotto. Add chopped cucumber and roasted (unsalted) cashew nuts.
- Feta cheese and rosemary risotto. Add the rosemary to the soffritto and stir small chunks of the feta cheese through the risotto at the end. Use roasted breadcrumbs instead of parmesan cheese.
- Paella is similar to a risotto, but uses a very different cooking method.
- Add sliced mushrooms, sliced sun-dried tomatoes and shredded pepperoni before adding the wine. Add tin of asparagus just before it finishes, or fresh asparagus stalks just before the wine.
- Sweet pea risotto: add sweet peas about 10 minutes before mantecatura.
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