Risotto is Italy’s unique contribution to rice cookery. At its most basic, the rice is toasted with a flavor base of sautéed onion, then simmered in broth that is added ladleful by ladleful. When the rice is nearly cooked, it is vigorously stirred with grated cheese (and sometimes a knob of butter) into a creamy and delicious mound.
Risotto is one of the most versatile of dishes. It may be even more versatile than pasta. You can use almost anything—meat, fish, shellfish, vegetables and even fruit—to flavor a risotto. Just in the past few weeks, for example, I’ve made four kinds of risotto at home: a risotto with bacon and Belgian endive, one with ham and asparagus, one with pumpkin and, just last night, a strawberry risotto.
But before we get into the fancy stuff, let’s take a look at the basic recipe that is common to all risotti:
- 1/4 onion, chopped or finely sliced
- Butter and/or oil
- 70-100g (1/3-1/2 cup) rice for risotto (see Notes)
- White wine
- Broth (preferably homemade)
Step 1: Make a soffritto. You begin by gently sauteeing chopped or finely sliced onion in butter and/or or oil. (Adding a pinch of salt and a drop of water softens the onions as they cook so they don’t burn.)
Step 2: Toast the rice. Add the rice and let it ‘toast’ in the soffrito for a few minutes, until the grains turn chalky white.
Step 3: Add wine. Add a splash of wine—almost always white, but red is possible in a few instances. For a very special risotto, you can use champagne. Let the wine evaporate.
Step 4: Add broth ladle by ladle. Now add the broth, ladle by ladle, allowing each ladleful of broth to evaporate before adding the next. Stir from time to time. (There are some cooks who say it’s only necessary to stir when adding the broth.) Repeat until the rice is ‘al dente‘, which should take around 20 minutes.
Step 5: ‘La mantecatura‘. When the rice is nearly cooked, take the risotto off heat. Add a generous amount of grated parmesan cheese and, if you like, a bit of butter. Stir vigorously until the rice reaches as uniform, creamy consistency. (This last step is called la mantecatura—which I might loosely translate as enrichment. By adding cheese and butter and agitating the rice kernels and releasing their starch, you give the risotto a rich, creamy texture.)
Step 6 (Optional): Rest. You should normally serve your risotto immediately. But for a slightly firmer risotto, you can cover and let it sit for a minute or two. If the risotto is too stiff for your taste, stir in a bit of hot water, broth or cream to loosen it up.
Flavoring Your Risotto: The Condimento
If you follow the above recipe, you wind up with the most basic of all risotti, risotto in bianco or ‘white risotto’. Most risotti, however, are flavored with some other ingredient referred to in Italian as the condimento. If you add a bit of chopped bone marrow to the butter at the beginning, and saffron dissolved in broth to the rice while it is cooking, you’ll have the classic risotto alla milanese, ambrosial on its own as a primo piatto and the invariable accompaniment to ossobuco—one of the few instances where rice is used as a sort of side dish in Italian cooking.
But most often, the condimento is added (cut into small dice or thinly sliced) to the soffrito and allowed to absorb its flavors for a few minutes before adding the rice. For example, when I made that risotto with bacon and Belgian endive: I added the bacon to the butter to render its fat, then added the onions and endives cut in julienne to saute for a few minutes, then the rice, before proceeding with the basic recipe. For the risotto with ham and asparagus, I added both ingredients, cut into small dice, to the already sauteed onions, and continued from there. Most risotti work this way, and, as I mentioned, there is almost no limit to the variety of risotti you can conjure up in this way. It’s a great way to use up spare vegetables and other bits and pieces of leftovers.
But when the flavoring element is particularly delicate in flavor or texture, it can be added either while the rice is cooking (peas or some seafood, for example) or even at the very end, just before you begin to mantecare—and this is usually how you make strawberry risotto. In this case, the flavoring element is sometimes cooked separately before being added to the rice. For example you saute thinly sliced strawberries in butter, added cream, and then added the resulting ‘sauce’ to the risotto at the very last minute.
You have a great deal of flexibility when decided how much condimento to add your rice. Anywhere between a 1:1 to a 1:2 ratio by weight of condimento to rice will work, depending on how ’emphatic’ you want to flavor the risotto and the nature of the condimento. Generally speaking, I would use less meat, for example, than I would vegetable, or the risotto will become too heavy. You can use more of foods that tend to ‘melt’ while cooking, in particular leafy vegetables. Very strongly flavored foods like pancetta or saffron, of course, do not follow this rule–add just enough to lend flavor.
Finishing Your Risotto: The Mantecatura
The last step in making a risotto by vigorously stirring the rice usually with butter and cheese, may be the most important. It’s what gives risotto its characteristic creamy texture. There also some variations at this stage, known as the mantecatura.
For a number of risotti, especially those using slightly bitter winter vegetables like radicchio or Belgian endive, I like to add some cream (still on heat) and let it reduce before proceeding with the cheese (off heat). (In these cases I omit the butter.) A friend of mine from Milan told me that she liked to add—believe it or not—Philadelphia cream cheese in addition to the parmesan cheese to finish the dish.
For seafood risotti, you usually do not use butter or cheese at the end (it is a fairly strict rule for Italians not to mix seafood and aged cheese), but some cooks add olive oil instead to finish the dish. Personally, however, I don’t object to cream, cheese and/or butter in a shrimp risotto.
Key Tips and Tricks for Making Risotto
The main trick to making risotto is the proper regulation of the heat. Cook it too fast and the inside of the rice grains will turn out chalky. Cook it too slow, and you will wind up with a stodgy mush… yuck!
The other essential for a successful risotto is to use the right kind of rice. Here, there is simply no substitute for imported Italian short grained rice. The most common varietals are arborio, carnaroli and vialone nano. Both of the latter two are more expensive (and can be harder to find), but are superior to Arborio in my book. I was recently converted to vialone nano, which has wonderful absorptive qualities and produces a creamy, but never stodgy, risotto. If you’re living in the US, I don’t recommend using American-grown arborio rice. I’ve tried it, and it just does not give satisfactory results. If you use long grain rice, it may taste good, but it will not be risotto, which is characterized by the creamy texture that you can only get with the shorter grained variety.
And now I’ll let you in a little secret. I’m usually too lazy to make risotto the traditional way, adding broth ladle by ladle and stirring for 20 minutes. In fact, you can make a perfectly acceptable risotto in about 5-10 minutes using a pressure cooker. Yes, that’s right, a pressure cooker.
You follow the basic recipe until it is time to add the broth. Instead of adding just a bit of borth, add enough to cover the risotto by about 1 cm or so. Bring to a full boil, stir well, then cover and bring the pot up to pressure. Lower the heat and allow it to cook under pressure for about 5 minutes, then release the pressure. The broth should have been entirely absorbed, and the rice almost done. Continue with the dish, adding a bit more broth if the rice is still too al dente. If it’s just right, then proceed to finish off the dish (mantecare).
And here’s another dirty little secret: although risotto will always taste better with homemade broth, if you are using a flavoring element, you can get away with using commercial bouillon. (Shhh….!)
Origins and Regional Variations
Risotto originated as a northern Italian peasant food. Italy is a major European rice producer. Most production takes place in the Po valley, which runs from Piemonte through Lombardy to the Veneto. (There is a great neorealismo film, by the way, called Riso Amaro, about the hard life of rice farmers in the Po Valley.) It is in this band across the top of Italy that risotto got its start, and where it is still most commonly eaten today. Milan is perhaps the ‘capital’ of the risotto, where they make it creamy but fairly firm. By contrast, in the Veneto they often make risotto almost runny. They call their way of making risotto all’onda, or ‘like a wave’, as it should flow into the plate as you serve it.
While risotto is associated with northern Italy, there are some risotto dishes to be found southward. One of the classic dishes of Neapolitan cuisine is sartù di riso, a baked risotto timbale with an elaborate filling. And two wonderful risotti often appear on Roman menus. One is risotto alla crema di scampi, made with a puree of sauteed shrimp, and the other risotto nero, made with squid ink. (The latter is actually a Venetian dish, I believe.) Try both next time you’re in Italy, you won’t regret it!