How to Make the Creamiest Risotto (In All Its Variations)
Tips and ideas for your own take on risotto
Risotto is one of those dishes that I wouldn't call “easy” per se. BUT: It is “easy” to learn if with a little time and patience. Risotto is a wonderful template of a dish to use to train your sense for ingredients and cooking times. Why? Because a risotto needs your full and undivided attention, at least at the beginning. The cooking process is an almost meditative act: You need to focus on the experience of the present, doing just enough to not fall asleep in the process.
In Italy the original risotto is based on a rounded, short-grain rice, broth and Parmesan cheese. It’s a creamy dish that takes advantage of the high starch content of the type of rice to yield a result that is both al dente and creamy, but not mushy and definitely not sticky. Today, Italy, especially the north and the Piedmont region, is among the largest rice-growing areas in Europe, where mainly risotto rice varieties are grown. The best known in Italy and beyond are Arborio or Carnaroli, but there are many more and it can be, if you’re interested, a lifelong experiment to look for the one you like best.
How to achieve the perfect risotto consistency
When is risotto ready? Like with pasta (if you need tips, see here), risotto rice should note be overcooked into mush. Al dente, with a little bite to it, is the adjective you should look for. In Italy, a risotto may even be rather runny and slosh slightly back and forth on the plate. All'onda is what they call it then, meaning wavy or on the wave. So if you can trace a wave into the surface risotto with a spoon and watch it slowly disappear again, you're on the right track.
How to make risotto at home: The basics
At some point, we all fall into a routine with recipes we cook over and over again. However, there are a few steps that no risotto recipe should be without, that I have found consistently in all of the teachers (The Silver Spoon or Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Kitchen and more) and that have stood the test of time in my numerous attempts.
Mise en Place (or prepare your ingredients ahead): As I said before, a risotto is not a dish you can leave to itself for long. Therefore, it's essential to have everything that needs to be chopped (the base, which could consist of onion or shallots, garlic, sometimes finely chopped celery or fennel), weighed (like the rice or other vegetables), heated (broth or, in a pinch, water), and grated (like Parmesan cheese) before you begin to cook. This way, you can focus completely on your leisurely stirring knowing each ingredient is prepped and ready to go when you need it.
Measure out the rice roughly according to the number of people: If you don't, you'll end up with too little risotto per person or (as is more often the case) with far too much. You can always make arancini or eat it for a few days afterwards but for an at least approximate portion, 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup (100 - 150 grams) of risotto rice per person is a good rule of thumb. I've found that's about how much can be scooped up into the palm hand, my go-to tool for free-form cooking.
Don't wash your risotto rice: Or you'll lose all the starch that builds up all the creamy consistency. Risotto rice sometimes looks almost dusty because of this starchy coating, but this is a good sign. Basmati rice, for example, should be washed thoroughly before cooking to remove the starch so that it can become as fluffy as possible and does not stick together.
Sauté the rice: After your chopped shallot or onion (and garlic, if you use it) has been sautéed in butter until translucent, briefly sauté your risotto rice, too. Doing so brings more flavor to your dish, and the brief sauté helps the starch bind, meaning the individual grains of rice will better keep their shape along the way.
Never use cold broth! The reason is simply that the cooking process stops as soon as cold liquid hits the warm rice. The rule of thumb is to add four to six times the amount of liquid to one part of uncooked rice until the perfect consistency is reached. So then the risotto is creamy, almost runny, and still firm to the bite.
Add the broth a little at a time: This is crucial and is written into recipes for a reason. If you add too much broth to the rice, you simply boil it. If you only add your hot broth ladle by ladle and only add more once the rice has absorbed the liquid, you allow the rice grains to interact with each other and the starch to slowly build up into a creamy sauce.
More tips for how to cook really good risotto
Here are a few extra tips that will make a difference when you set out on your mission to make the perfect risotto.
Use a large pot instead of a shallow pan: Although you often see risotto cooked in pans with high sides, this method tends to work against your preferred end result. Because of the relatively wide surface, the rice grains are cooked in too thin a layer. They don't have enough friction, ergo, not enough starch can form, plus there will be hotter and colder spots, which means the rice won't cook evenly. The utensils you use are so much bound to preference and what you have, but I can say, using a pot or a pan with high sides gives me the perfect risotto, every time—even if it takes a little more patience and stirring meditation.
Don't stir too much! This sounds counterproductive at first, given I’ve already told you that your stirring power is needed, but it makes sense if you take a closer look. The starch activates its creamy powers as the rice grains rub against each other, which happens with occasional stirring. If stirred too much, too much air gets into the mixture, and the rice cools and becomes sticky, but not liquidy and creamy.
The final step for perfect creaminess occurs after cooking: Carlo Cracco, a chef from Milan, explains that a risotto must rest for a minute before serving once it is al dente or all'onda, before fat in the form of butter, Parmesan or even olive oil is then stirred in to thicken it. Only now is it done and ready to be served.
And for advanced cooks: Make a half-cooked risotto, then finish it off once needed. For this, our chef Hanna cooked a basic risotto of shallots, white wine and broth and removed it from the heat as soon as the rice was half cooked. Once cooled, it can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days and then heated up as needed with a few ladles of broth, enriched with other ingredients (radicchio, saffron, mushrooms, asparagus...) and finished cooking that way.
Start with these risotto recipes
Probably the most classic risotto among its kind is risotto alla Milanese with saffron. Mushroom risotto is another traditional recipe and with added shrimp, carrots and honey or gremolata you can add further flourish. Because wild garlic and asparagus season is not so far away, you may also want to save this, this or this recipe. And if you do make a mistake with the amount of rice and have way too much risotto left over, there's really only one answer: arancini.
Cook your own risotto
Maybe you were already, but by now you're definitely armed to make your own risotto. One of my favorite versions is radicchio risotto. It's bitter, fruity, acidic and, of course, creamy. I always have fennel or celery at home, and add both or either to the pot, chopped, alongside the onions right at the beginning. For the finale, I always have some lemon and some kind of soft herb, like parsley for example, on hand. In the winter months I like to use Brussels sprouts as the star vegetable and add roasted hazelnuts on top as a finish. So although the base always stays the same (onion, cheese, broth), there is so much room to build on this. Why not experiment with other types of risotto rice and cheese? Soon enough, you’ll find your own favorite version of the Italian national dish.
As always, let us know your favorite in the comments—or send me any lingering risotto questions!
Published on March 28, 2021