There is a 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. (As I’ve mentioned before, you can add a pinch of salt and a drop of water to soften the onions as they cook to make sure they don’t burn.)
Step 2: Toast the rice: Then add the rice and let it ‘toast’ in the soffrito for a few minutes— just until the grains turn a chalky white color.
Step 3: Add wine: Then add a splash of wine—almost always white, but red is possible in a few instances and, for a very special risotto, you can use champagne—and let it evaporate.
Step 4: Add broth ladle by ladle: Then add broth, ladle by ladle, allowing each ladleful of broth to evaporate before adding the next ladleful, stirring often. (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 cooked, you take the risotto off heat and, for most risotti, add a generous amount of grated parmesan cheese and, if you like, a bit of butter, mixing vigorously to create a creamy consistency. (This last step is called la mantecatura—which I might loosely translate as enrichment, the idea being that 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 conversely the risotto is too stiff for your taste, stir in a bit of hot water, broth or cream to loosen it up.
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. 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 have the classic risotto alla milanese, ambrosial on its own as a primo piattoand 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 flavoring element is added (cut into small dice or thinly sliced) to the soffrito and allowed to insaporire for a few minutes before adding the rice. This is how I made the 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 make this way. It’s a great way to use up spare vegetables and other stuff. Even leftovers can be used as the flavoring element for a risotto.
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.
There also some variations at the mantecare stage. For a number of risotti, especially those using slightly bitter winter vegetables like radicchio, belgian endive and ‘elegant’ vegetables like asparagus, I like to add cream (still on heat) and let it reduce before proceeding with the cheese (off heat), in which I case 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–the sight of non-Italians sprinkling grated cheese on their spaghetti and clam sauce can still make me gag!), but some cooks add olive oil instead to finish the dish. But, personally, I don’t object to cream, cheese and/or butter in a shrimp risotto–in fact, I rather like it that way.
The main trick to making risotto is the proper regulation of the heat. Cook it too fast, and the outside will be soft while the inside of the rice grains will still be 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: most commonly, arborio, but also carnaroli and vialone nano. Both of the latter two are more expensive (and can be harder to find), so I usually stuck to arborio, but was recently converted to vialone nanowhich 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 all the time, for 20 minutes. In fact, you can make 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, add enough to cover the risotto by about 1 cm or so, bring to a full boil, stir well, then cover and bring 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 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, and most production is in the Po valley–which runs west to east from the Piemonte, through Lombardy (where Milan is) to the Veneto into the Adriatic Sea–with its center on the plains of Lombardy. (There is a great film of the neorealismo movement, by the way, called Riso Amaro, about the hard life of rice farmers.) It is in this band across the top of Italy that risotto got its start and where it is still most common today. Milan is perhaps the ‘capital’ of the risotto, where they make it creamy but fairly firm, while in Venice and the rest of the Veneto, they make risotti usually with seafood and almost runny–all’onda as they say, or ‘like a wave’, as it should flow into the plate as you serve it.
While risotto is associated with the north, one of the classic (and most elaborate) dishes of Neapolitan cuisine is sartù di riso, a baked risotto timbale filled with little meatballs, chicken livers, sausage, peas and tomato sauce. And while Rome is not really risotto country, two wonderful risotti often appear on Roman menus: risotto alla crema di scampi, made with a puree of sauteed shrimp, and 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!