The Risotto Lesson

Risotto - rice in the Spotlight

Like individual gold nuggets they sparkled on the plate. Everyone else at the table looked at me with jealously. They wanted what I had. “Tough”, I thought. “They could have ordered the Risotto Milanese too. It was right there on the menu.”

Risotto is rice in the spotlight - the star of the show. This is a very different concept than the way rice is usually used in the United States, as a backdrop, something to fill up the plate. Risotto is a classic dish of northern Italy and there are as many variations as there are ingredients available.
What’s the big deal? Rice is rice, right? Wrong.

Everything is special about Risotto. The rice, the ingredients and the way it is cooked makes it not only delicious, but the most elegant rice dish in the world. Risotto, like all Italian cooking, is first based on the quality of the ingredients. To make wonderful risotto you have to have just the right rice and a fresh tasting broth that brings out the flavors of the other ingredients. The right technique is also essential. Without it you end up with a rice mush. Forget those who argue for shortcuts like pressure cookers. There are no shortcuts to great risotto.

Why would you want to take a shortcut? Making risotto is like therapy and much cheaper than lying on your shrink’s couch for an hour. The rhythmic and peaceful nature of making risotto has a mantra like effect. Perhaps this is the start of a new self-help book, “Kitchen Therapy, the way to spiritual enlightenment through stirring”. Risotto takes time. It is not hard to make, it just requires patience and a little care. Like all things involved with fine dining, risotto is not about speed. Not that it takes that long, only twenty minutes form the time you start, but in that it requires your undivided attention for those twenty minutes.

Unfortunately there is a lot of poor risotto sold in restaurants at high prices. If your risotto arrives at your table in less than twenty minutes you know they are cheating in the kitchen. Risotto made using shortcuts never has the texture and complexity of risotto properly made.
Risotto is much more than rice carrying other flavors. If you can’t taste each grain of this special rice dish keep trying. The goal is to learn the technique and then start creating your own recipes.

Risotto is rice in the spotlight.

The Rice

No you can’t use that big bag of rice sitting in your cabinet to make risotto. Risotto can be made from only three types of rice – all from Italy. Sometimes you see Arborio or one of the other types of Italian rice grown in the USA, but I say avoid them. To get stellar risotto you have to seek out the best Italian brands. Yes, that inexpensive box of Arborio at the Italian grocery will work just find, but with a little more investment in time and money you will find brands that cook and taste better.

The secret to risotto is in the way these types of Italian rice absorb liquid – in our case the broth. Each piece of the rice used for risotto has two characteristics:

A very soft starch on the outside that melts away from the kernel and makes gives the creamy texture to risotto.

A very hard inner starch that stays firm and gives the risotto its backbone – the ability to have in the finished dish an ‘al dente’ or firm texture to each grain of rice.
This combination of creaminess and an individual bite for each grain is what makes risotto so special. You can only create this unique combination with three types of rice.


Arborio is the Marilyn Monroe of rice, very amply endowed with the outer layer of starch that melts away, but it is a little light on the inner, hard starch that gives bite each kernel of rice. These characteristics produce the very rich and creamy risotto style of risotto loved in Lombardia, Emilia-Romagna and Piemonte. The famous Risotto Milanese was born of this rice. Warning: because of all the soft starch it is easy to overcook Arborio and end up with rice porridge instead of risotto. You always want to be able to taste each grain of rice. It is grown primarily in Piemonte and Emilia-Romagna. You must buy the ‘superfino’ grade of Arborio. The superfino name can be applied to only the plumpest grains.

Vialone Nano

The rice of choice in Veneto and Fruili. This is a short ugly little guy and is almost the opposite of Arborio in that it has a strong hard inner kernel and is light on the soft outer layer that melts away. This is perfect rice for those who really appreciate the ‘al dente’ style. While Arborio creates a very creamy risotto, Vialone Nano is more grainy and each kernel is very distinct in the dish. A perfect choice for seafood risotto and very fresh vegetables. To me this rice is so distinct from Arborio they are almost different dishes.


The new kid on the block. Carnaroli only arrived on the Italian scene in 1945, the creation of a Milanese rice grower who created a hybrid by crossing Vialone Nano with a Japanese variety of rice. This is the most expensive or the three types of rice and combines the strengths of both Arborio and Vialone Nano. Carnaroli has more than enough the outside soft starch to make a creamy risotto, but also has a substantial amount of the hard inner starch to make an ‘al dente’ risotto with clearly defined kernels of rice.

I recommend using and experimenting with all three until you establish your own personal preferences. With experience you will probably want to use all three depending on what kind of risotto you are making.

The Broth

Cookbook after cookbook suggests using chicken broth for risotto. With few exceptions a delicate beef broth will give you a far more complex and interesting risotto. Some chefs argue that chicken stock can give a bitter flavor to risotto. I have used chicken broth with good results, but greatly prefer the flavor of risotto prepared with beef broth. This is true for all except seafood risotto which is often cooked with plain water using flavors from the seafood itself to flavor the rice.
First an important definition, the broth you use for risotto is not stock. A stock is made by simmering meat or fish with bones and vegetables the resulting liquid is strained and often reduced to concentrate flavors. An Italian broth is often the byproduct of making a main dish like Il Lesso da Brodo, a boiled beef main course that creates a wonderful broth. To make a beef broth for risotto you use a piece of meat, add a couple of bones if you have them, and some aromatic vegetables. This broth is much more delicate than the classic French style stock made with many bones to create the rich flavor that is the basis for sauces. A stock would produce flavors too intense for risotto as the flavors are concentrated as the cooking proceeds.

The easy broth recipe:
In a 6 to 8 quart pot of cold water add:
>2 carrots peeled and halved.
>2 stalks celery with leaves if possible
>1 onion, halved.

>Bring the water to a boil.
>Add a 4 to 6 lb. chuck roast or other inexpensive cut of beef and two chicken legs and thighs and return to boil. Make sure the meat is covered by at least of two inches of water.
>Reduce heat to a simmer, cover loosely and skim any scum that comes to the surface.
>After two hours add 1 tbl. sea salt.
>Simmer gently for about 4 hours in total, or until the meat is very tender.
>When done serve the beef with your favorite condiments – like extra virgin olive oil and lemon or horseradish and mustard. Though not very Italian the beef makes great hot or cold sandwiches.
>Strain the remaining broth and refrigerate overnight , discard the vegetables . When cold remove the congealed fat. If you don’t have time to refrigerate strain the broth through a cheese cloth that has been in the freezer for at least a half an hour.
>If you prefer to use chicken stock use the above recipe replacing the beef with a 4 to 5 lb. whole chicken. For the decadent version of Risotto Milanese replace the beef with meaty beef shanks with marrow.

Serving Risotto

Primo or secondo? Risotto can fill both roles with style. Following the traditional Italian manner of eating; first would come the antipasti (appetizers), followed by the primo (the first course usually a starch like pasta or risotto), which would be followed by the secondo (main course usually fish or meat). However we find risotto such a satisfying dish we often serve it as the main course.
If you are having a formal Italian meal and going through all the courses, any of the these risotti as a first course will help make your dinner an elegant occasion. Because these are relatively rich risotto recipes, I would recommend a secondo featuring meat as fish may seem a little delicate after either of these risotti. Also if you follow with a meat course you can easily continue with the wine you matched with the risotto.

In Milano, they often serve Risotto Milanese in a way that breaks the normal rules of primo and secondo. Instead of a first course the risotto becomes side dish (more equal partner) to Osso Buco, the famous braised veal shank dish of Lombardia. Of course this risotto is also served as a traditional first course both in restaurants and at home.

Serving risotto as a main course is also a great opportunity to present a more elaborate cheese course to top off the meal. The textures and flavors of the cheeses are a great counterpoint to the risotto.

Primo or secondo? It’s your choice and you can’t lose.

Basic Risotto

Serves 4 as a main course or 8 as a first course (primo).
Preparation time: 45 minutes (20 minutes cooking time)

The basics:the basic technique
>10 or more cups HOT beef broth - Yours!!! See the easy broth recipe on page 3.
TIP: Keep the stock hot, almost boiling, over heat throughout the preparation
>1 small onion -FINELY chopped (the sweeter the onion the better, use Vidalias in season, but red onions are not recommended)
TIP: Take the time to dice the onion very finely. I do not recommend a food processor.
>1/4 pound UNSALTED butter. I recommend Pulgra or a European style unsalted butter as it has a richer flavor than commercial American butter. Use the American butter if you can't find the European style butter it will still be good.
TIP: Feel free to use a little more butter- the dish will be that much richer.
>2 cups - Italian Arborio or Carnaroli Rice - do not replace. You HAVE to use these unique types of rice imported from Italy
TIP: The rice is critical because these type of Italian rice absorbs a huge amount of liquid.
>2 glasses good dry white wine.
TIP: If you won't drink it don't put it in.

The beginning:
>In a large, large heavy sauté pan, melt all but 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium high heat DO NOT LET IT BROWN!
TIP: I use a 5 quart Calphalon sauté pan as the handle helps steady the pan while stirring. I don’t like using a pot with sides that are very high.
TIP: Keep the pan as hot as you can throughout the process without burning or browning anything! As you add the hot broth it should come to a light boil in the pan with the rice.
Once the butter is melted put the chopped onions in the pan and lightly sauté until just translucent DO NOT LET THEM BROWN!
TIP: I recommend a broad flat wooden spatula. Stirring should be slow and make sure to reach all parts of the pan.
>Once the onions are just cooked add the rice and toss with the butter and onions. Cook and toss like this for about a minute.
>Add 1 glass of the wine and cook until evaporated, drink the other glass while cooking the risotto.

You have now reached the point of variations! The beginning and the finish is the same only the middle changes. TIP: You must have made up your mind before you get to this point which risotto you are going to make as the process must be continuous, not stop and go.

Variation One—Risotto con Funghi (porcini mushrooms)
The basics on page above plus:
>Dried porcini mushrooms soaked in a bowl of warm water for 2 hours (I use just over half of the 1 oz. package), then chop half of them finely and half coarsely reserving the mushroom broth. Strain the mushroom broth through cheesecloth and reserve– heat before using. Dried mushrooms can be sandy and this sand will fall to the bottom of the bowl where you soaked—try to leave the sand in the bottom of the bowl when you strain the mushroom broth.
TIP:No you can't use the bland fresh mushrooms they sell in the USA and fresh porcini are not available.
TIP:OK if you forget you can put them in very hot water (microwave?) for 30 minutes but I think the flavors are better and there is less chance of sandy risotto if you soak it longer. I like to do it for at least 2 hours. This makes an excellent mushroom broth that adds a lot of flavor to the dish.
salt to taste (don't forget when you add the cheese at the end it also adds salt).

Continuing from the beginning above:
>Once the wine has evaporated and you are drinking the other glass-
>Add the hot mushroom broth and the chopped mushrooms.
>Once the broth is absorbed by the rice began adding the HOT stock one ladle at time.
>REPEAT patiently adding one ladle of hot broth at a time waiting until it is almost absorbed before adding the next ladle.
TIP: To make really good risotto you have to stand there and stir it slowly but continuously. I really mean it! Everything must be prepared and organized in advance.
>From here to the finish is simple - keep stirring and keep adding the hot both as it cooks into the rice and keep drinking the wine in your glass.
>The process now takes about 18 minutes from the time you add the first ladle of broth to the rice. Start tasting the rice after 15 minutes to check the cooking progress. Each grain should retain just a bite—not a crunch.

Variation Two—Risotto Milanese - Italian rice with saffron
All of the basics above plus:
>Saffron powder (at least 125 mg.) mixed with one cup of the hot broth for 5 minutes or, preferably, saffron threads (at least 300 mg.) mixed with a cup of the hot broth and soaked for at least 30 minutes (60 is better).
TIP: Saffron threads are best and are prettiest in the finished dish.

Continuing from the beginning above:
>Once the wine has evaporated and you are drinking the other glass.
>Begin adding the HOT broth one ladle at time.
>After you have added one ladle of broth add either the saffron powder mixed with a ladle of hot broth or the saffron thread that have been soaking in a cup of the hot broth for at least 30 minutes.
>REPEAT patiently adding one ladle of hot broth at a time waiting until it is almost absorbed before adding the next ladle.
TIP: To make really good risotto you have to stand there and stir it slowly but continuously. I really mean it! Everything must be prepared and organized in advance.
>Salt to taste
>From here to the finish is simple - keep stirring, add keep adding the hot both as it cooks into the rice and drink the wine in your glass. Start tasting the rice after 15 minutes to check the cooking progress. Each grain should retain just a bite—not a crunch.
>The process takes about 18 minutes from the time you add the first ladle of broth to the rice.Start tasting the rice after 15 minutes to check the cooking progress. Each grain should retain just a bite—not a crunch.

Finishing both:

But when is the rice done? You have to taste it frequently after you have been blending in the broth for 15 minutes. The rice should be firm to the bite - not crunchy but also not soft like the steamed rice we make in the United States. The risotto should also be quite moist - not dry at all. It will look and taste creamy in your mouth.

The Mantacare:

>When the rice is just short of being done remove from heat and blend in what is called the mantacare, the remaining butter and cheese - this adds a rich creamy texture to the risotto:
>Blend in the remaining butter and
>1/2 of a cup grated Italian Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese
TIP: The American versions of this cheese are all terrible. Please after all this work use real Parmigiano Reggiano.

Sprinkle with a bit of freshly chopped parsley, preferable Italian flat leaf
Serve immediately with additional freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.