We all know what good risotto tastes like but how to make it seems a mystery.
Ever read a risotto recipe and then read another?
Some say toast the rice, some say don't.
Stir constantly. No, don't touch it.
Always use a metal pan, only use a saucepan; it really is a baffling minefield of contradictory instructions.
Not to mention which rice to use...
Risotto is simple but out of the most popular rice options, there are subtle differences which if you're Italian (or a chef) make all the difference:
Arborio - our family favourite. Fat grains, very starchy, mainly used in Italian homes, Arborio easily overcooks and quickly becomes stodgy.
Carnaroli - another classic home-cooked risotto fave. Large grains but less starchy thus able to maintain an al-dente firmness.
Vialone Nano - a restaurant classic. This small grain maintains its shape and density which is perfect for creating a risotto base in restaurants. Because of its high Amylose (a starch with does not gelatinize) content, the rice grains can easily be perfectly cooked and remain separate from each other, an aspect of a good risotto.
Baldo - geographically protected, Baldo is grown exclusively in the delta of the River Po. It is small in size but low in Amylose.
Roma - similar to Baldo in size and starch content, this rice grain is pearled instead of crystallised, making a beautiful, creamy al-dente risotto.
What makes a good risotto?
Good risotto has specific traits:
This seems obvious but to obtain a creamy risotto is an art because it has to be silky but not starchy and the time between these two delicate phases is a question of minutes. Butter and Grana Padano are added at the end of cooking, a stirring-in process called 'la mantecatura' and while some chefs say vigorously beat the additions into the rice with a wooden spoon to create a creamy finish, others say only a gentle stir will do, in order not to break the grains.
2. Al dente
A Milanese chef claims 15 minutes is all it takes, any more and the rice grains overcook. Now, your rice determines your cooking time but there's a rule of thumb requiring a tiny firmness to the centre, like al-dente pasta. To obtain this texture, serving time is crucial but it's a question of practice, knowing your kitchen and your ingredients. There's a number of cooking minutes on every risotto rice box which you can use as a guide but your best gauge is your teaspoon, keep tasting and stop when you think it is almost done. This will allow a few minutes grace for your mantecatura and the time it takes for your risotto to reach the table.
3. Separated grains
Things get a little technical here, especially if we look into the individual starch properties of each type of rice, but we don't have to. The five risotti rice above mention potential starchiness not related to cooking times. All overcooked rice becomes starchy and clumpy, which in some Italian households is the norm. Restaurant risotto requires the grains to be separated but united in a creamy, silky texture that holds its shape and is not watery. The risotto should sit (not stand) on your fork and not swim in your spoon. The starch in Arborio can make your risotto creamy, but then timing is of the essence because a minute can make all the difference and that's why restaurant chefs love Valone Nano. It's not a gelatinous rice thus the creaminess comes from broth, butter and Grana Padano mixed vigorously in a final flourish (la mantecatura) before serving. Because of Vialone Nano's properties, a minute here or there is not going to change much.
La tostatura needs to be mentioned here; some chefs swear by the correct 'toasting' of the rice before stock is added. Some claim it should be sauteed in butter alone, some say in the initial mix of ingredients. The reason for la tostatura is to gently brown and coat the grains in butter which helps them remain separate in the final dish. A startchy rice like Arborio or Carnaroli really benefits from this process.
Broth is the key. Ingredients may be added at initial sauteing stages and some towards the end of cooking, however, they should merely complement the dish, instead of taking over. The key to your flavour lies in the liquid you add, thus many a risotto al futti di mare (seafood) will be made with pre-prepared flavourful fish-stock.
There's something subtle about risotto. It's not bold or brash, perhaps reflecting northern Italian tastes that lean towards Austrian cooking where butter is used instead of full-flavoured olive oils and cheeses are softer in taste. Starchy carbohydrates feature the more north one travels and risotto embodies the balance of a few key ingredients in a simple, delicate dish. You can taste the rice, the butter, the onions and the broth and in fact, if you ever get the chance, do sample a Risotto alla Parmigiana. It may seem bland, like a key ingredient is missing, but in this delicate medley, all ingredients masterfully become key, especially the rice.
The mystery unfolded
Follow these simple steps to an authentically good risotto - the one good thing about a melange of contradictory instructions is: There's no right or wrong!
Here is our tried and tested guide:
Use Arborio or Carnaroli rice, 75g per person.
Get your broth ready and simmering (it needs to be boiling hot) - use a stock cube, pre-made or homemade stock, just taste it first to check its tasty and delizioso - you should want to drink it.
Finely chop white onion and sauté in butter, then add your mushrooms.
Toss your rice in the mixture for two minutes to coat every grain with butter and flavour.
Begin to add your stock ladle by ladle, stirring gently.
After approximately 10 minutes, start to check the texture of the rice until there is a hard centre but the outside is soft.
Switch off the heat while the rice is relatively liquid and add a teaspoon of butter and a tablespoon of grated Grana Padano. Stir gently with your wooden spoon for one minute. Crack black pepper over your risotto and serve hot.
With so many flavours, risotto is an amazingly versatile dish. It should be kept simple with a couple of ingredients you can taste individually in every forkful. Play around with what you have, that said, here are the classic risotto combinations you'll find in Italy:
Milanese - Carnaroli rice, saffron and beef stock, traditionally served with bone marrow.
Porcini and Salsiccia - dried mushrooms are also popular with their liquid used as the stock.
Frutti di Mare - a medley of seafood, fish stock and shellfish.
Parmigiana - the most delicate risotto you'll find, with five ingredients, taste the butter and Parmesan
Asparagi - green or white, a celebrated seasonal Spring dish.
Nero di Seppia - typically Venetian made with black squid ink.
Prosecco - delicate with a hint of Prosecco, North Italy's pride and joy.
Radicchio - radicchio di Treviso is the star ingredient, pairing well with sausage in this authentically Trevigiano dish.
Which risotti have you made?
Saffron is a favourite in our home, we call it 'risotto giallo' - yellow risotto.