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Techniques for the Perfect Risotto

Photo by Yalamber Limbu on Unsplash

Everyone loves risotto. But there is no “recipe” for risotto because risotto is a cooking technique, a style of preparing rice. Once one learns the process the types of risotto and flavors you can develop are too numerous to list, but I can give you an idea. My favorite risotto flavors include bianco (simple white rice with or without cheese, with or without truffles, etc.), Milanese (saffron), Limone (lemon zest and lemon juice), frutti di mare (can be as simple as adding shrimp or lobster, or with a mix of various shellfish), nero or sepia (squid ink, especially delicious when topped with diced ahi tuna), radicchio (a favorite), funghi (porcini, fresh or dried, or a mix of different fresh and dried mushrooms), asparagi (asparagus), Bolognese (meat sauce), al erbe (herbs or one of several pesti), fregola (if you haven’t tried a strawberry risotto you should, but use underripe strawberries for a better acid balance and to prevent sweetness, so this is still is a savory primo) or just a simple pomodoro (tomato sauce–my Mom’s was always a tomato sauce with ground beef); ricchio di mare (sea urchin) produces one of the most luxurious creations I have ever had as a risotto, and risotto di Barolo (Barolo wine or other red wine is different and delicious). For celebrations make it with champagne or other sparkling wine (sparkling rose for Valentine’s Day?). Remember you can combine these. A risotto al limone can be topped with grilled shrimp. A risotto al Barolo can be topped with sliced rare beef or cooked with ground pork. There are no hard and fast rules. But you get the idea, it is not about a recipe, so you can be very, very creative, or you can just “clean out the refrigerator leftovers,” or you can choose a new and unique ingredient to use. Enough said about flavors, what are the rules and techniques for a successful risotto?

Rule #1: Choice of rice is critical.
Never make risotto with “Uncle Bens,” basmati or jasmine rice–long grain types that make fluffy rice preferred for dishes like pilaf. For risotto look for varieties of rice that produce a creamy texture, in other words, release starches during the cooking process. Arborio rice is the most common here in America, but I always use Carnaroli, considered the “caviar” of rice. I think Carnaroli produces a creamier texture and maintains its shape better, in other words, “harder to overcook.” Many chefs prefer to use Vialone Nano rice if making a “soupier” risotto (one finished with more broth).

Rule #2: How much rice?
One to two handfuls per person. Of course, if you are a diminutive nonna with smaller hands it means two handfuls, and if you are a professional basketball player with large hands then one handful. Start with a compromise of 1½ handfuls and see how it turns out for you. If you have a large appetite or this is main course, then two handfuls per person. If you are feeding children or have a small appetite or if it is a starter course then one handful per person. Plus one or two handfuls extra “for the pot.” You will learn over time how to judge the amount. It is subjective. Remember if you were too generous and made too much risotto, store it overnight in the refrigerator and the next day make “rice balls” (mix it with one egg, roll it into a ball in the palm of your hand around a stuffing of mozzarella cheese or a ground sausage mixture), roll the balls in breadcrumbs and fry. Polpette di Riso. Arancini.

Rule #3: Sweating the Aromatics*.
Saute onions first at a low temperature in butter or olive oil, and also the other aromatics if using, but risottos usually start only with onion. Fennel is a good aromatic to add for fish risotto. Garlic, bell peppers, carrots, celery, all are good aromatics. Onions and aromatics would be left out if you are making risotto bianco, or if are going to top it with shaved truffles you might not want the onion flavors to intrude on the truffles. When starting sautéed onions or other optional aromatics make sure they are diced to a consistency not larger than the rice kernels so they don’t predominate. Be very careful not to “brown” the aromatics, especially garlic, as will give bitter or burnt flavors to your risotto. Saute just until softened and “clear.”

Rule #4: Toast the rice.
Then add the rice. “Toasting” means to put the rice into hot olive oil or hot butter and toast it, seals the rice so that it will not absorb liquid too quickly and become mushy. You can raise the temperature for this but be careful not to burn the aromatics. If you wish to toast the rice over a higher temperature remove the aromatics while toasting the rice. Too high a temperature can also burn the “fond” on the bottom of the pan that you will need for later. So gentle toasting is best. How long to toast? Three tips. A) look for when the outside of the rice kernel becomes translucent and you can still see the white opaque center, B) listen for when the rice makes a sound like you are popping popcorn, C) watch for when the rice starts to get a very pale suntan. The sauté of the aromatics and the toasting of the rice is to give them a “very gentle suntan, a blush, not an intense red or brown sunburn.” All three or any one of the three is an indication that you have toasted enough. This should take three or four minutes if done gently.

Rule #5: Deglaze the pan with wine.
This does several things: it releases the starches and flavors (onion, caramelization) from the bottom of the pan so that the rice can absorb the caramelization, the aromatic flavors, and any butter or oil. This is usually done with a dry white wine but if making risotto Barolo it would be done with red wine, and if making bianco with champagne and truffles you would use champagne. You can also use dry Marsala or dry Sherry. Sauté over medium heat until wine is absorbed (no should no longer see a layer of liquid on the bottom of the pan).

Rule #6: Start adding broth.
You can use water in an emergency but a lot of flavor comes from the broth so broth is far preferred, but be careful, broth can be salty. So low-sodium broth or unsalted homemade broth is a better base. If using boxed store-bought broth intensify it by simmering it with onions, carrots, celery, and a bay leaf before using it. You will be well-rewarded with more flavors. The broth must be heated (microwaving in a measuring cup is the easiest) and added to the pan one ladle and a time. Stir the rice after adding the ladle of broth and simmer until absorbed, then add another. If you add too much liquid at one time the rice will not form a starch-based sauce, you will have boiled rice instead of risotto. You should use three times the liquid as the amount of rice used. My normal risotto amount would be one cup of rice and three cups of broth, with about and half cup to cup of wine. And continue adding until the rice is cooked al dente (about 18 – 20 minutes, more if your rice is “older” and therefore drier). If you are making a red wine risotto you would want to substitute one cup of good red wine for one-third of the broth.

Rule #7: Add vegetables, sauces, seafood, meat, if using.
There are two methods – you can add the vegetables, sauces, seafood/meats with the broth, immediately after deglazing, and cook them while the rice is cooking or you can pre-cook them for the type of risotto you are creating, and add them at the end. If adding fish, shellfish or chicken (any protein really, but fish, shellfish and chicken are the most sensitive) at the same time as the broth watch carefully that you do not overcook them.

Rule #8: Mantecato (whisked, creamed with butter).
Risotto should not be “dry” when it is finished, it should “flow” from the pan onto a serving platter. The Italians call this “all onda” or wavy. Take the pan off of the heat and add a pat of butter and whip the risotto with a wire whisk. This is done most easily if you cooked the risotto in a wok. The whipping with a whisk both aerates the risotto, incorporates the butter into the sauce, and releases starches making a nicer sauce. You can use mascarpone cheese instead of or in addition to butter if you would like. Add salt and pepper to taste during this step. Do not salt earlier as the broth might have salt in it which will be concentrated as the liquid is absorbed and reduces.

Rule #9: Cover and let rest.
Cover the pan and let the risotto rest for five minutes finishing the texture and melding the flavors. Then pour the risotto onto a serving platter.

Rule #10 Add toppings.
Last, add the toppings – grated parmesan or other cheeses; grind black pepper; add raw, diced ahi tuna to top a nero or sepia; shave truffles over a bianco; arrange grilled shrimp over a limone; be creative!

Rule #11: Enjoy immediately!
It is said in Italy, “The guests wait for the risotto, the risotto does not wait for guests!” If you make the risotto wait, it will get starchy, sticky, and lose its “all’onda” quality (“wavy, flowing in waves”). So serve and enjoy immediately!

Can You Shorten Time with a Pressure Cooker?
The question will always come up whether you can cook risotto in a pressure cooker or instant pot. Of course you can but I find it does not save a lot of time because the sauté of the aromatics, the toasting of the rice, the mantecato step, all are hand-done before or after the cooking time. The pressure cooker reduces the time to needed to add the broth is it is all added all at one time and the pressure cooking starts. So all the pressure cooker or instant pot does is reduce the broth-adding step, the cooking steps, which means you don’t have to sit at the stove and “add and stir.” It works perfectly well, might save you ten minutes of “watching” but the resulting risotto will have a different texture. You might have to adjust the liquid when the pressure cooker is finished so you won’t have a “soupier” risotto. This is fixed by then sautéing to evaporate the liquid, but this will also continue to cook the rise. Use a pressure cooker when time-constrained but it does not give you as much control over the finished product.

Finally, what wines to pair with risotto?
Depends on which risotto. A good rule of thumb would be to drink the same wine that you used in flavoring the risotto so that they are compatible, except of course if you used Marsala or Sherry. For a seafood or vegetable risotto – a dry white wine. For a red-wine risotto, a tomato risotto or a meat risotto – red wine. Sangiovese if tomato-based. Barolo if a risotto al Barolo. For a champagne-based risotto, then drink champagne (of course!) – and CELEBRATE!

Note: Risotto is really a far northern preparation as the rice is grown in the Po River Valley (Milan to Venice). Rice doesn’t grow southward as it is too dry. So risotto is really Venetian, Lombardian and Emiglia-Romagnan.


By Ronald L. Fenolio
CEO/Proprietor – Veedercrest Estates LLC
Chair – Family Winemakers of California
© 2021 Ronald L. Fenolio

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