Essential Risotto Tips
“Rice! Behold the fattening food that the Turks feed to their women, so that they will develop, as a celebrated and well-known professor would say, sumptuous adipose cushions.”-Pellegrino Artusi, Exciting Food For Southern Types
Risotto in a nutshell: melt an onion and then fry the rice to get it toasty, add wine/vermouth and burn off the alcohol, then add stock, stir all the time, add butter and Parmesan.
BUT, there is much more to it than that! What makes risotto so very special is the rice which has a core and an outer skin made up of two different types of starch. The starch of the outer skin dissolves and some is reabsorbed to produce the creaminess, whereas the core remains ‘al dente’ to give an interesting slightly gritty texture. It’s important that this inner core doesn’t get damaged.
One very helpful source of information on risotto that I’ve found is Palladian Days. This is a book written by an American couple, Sally and Carl Gable who lived in New York and were looking for a small country cottage in which to weekend. Somehow, however, the plan went breathtakingly awry, and instead they ended up buying a massive Palladian villa in northern Italy, and not just any villa, but one of architectural importance, one of just a handful of well preserved buildings designed by Palladio. The book is an account of their struggles with the planners, their detective work into the history of the house and its previous owners, the slow friendships they form…. and how Sally learnt to cook.
- use a big heavy saucepan – a Dutch oven – so that the heat is well distributed. A Le Creusset or even better a Staub is ideal
- use carnaroli rice rather than arborio or vialone nano, especially if you plan leftovers (why? Go to the bottom of the post for an explanation)
- some people (my hero Georgio Locatelli for example) use butter for the initial frying of the onion, but I find that a bit too heavy and I use olive oil. You can add ‘robust’ ingredients (for example, chopped sausage) at this stage.
- keep your stock hot/simmering as you add it (if you have an aga keep it on the warming plate)
- add a glass of wine or dry white or rosato vermouth before you begin to add the stock
- add a ladle at a time of stock, no more
- the beating in of the butter and cheese is an important stage in the whole process. It makes it even creamier – emphasising the essence of the dish.
- at the end of the process, but before you add the final the butter and parmesan, leave it to rest, covered, for a couple of minutes. This adds to the flavour and the creaminess which is the whole point of the dish.
- add COLD butter (which you have previously cut up and kept in the fridge) together with your grated Parmesan
- risotto for four should take just under 20 minutes – the larger the quantities the less time it takes because the rice retains the heat – but don’t try to cook it for too many as the heat doesn’t distribute properly
- don’t try to cook it for just two either as the heat penetrates too quickly, the rice absorbs too quickly and the whole texture of the dish is affected. You can always use leftover risotto rice to make, for example, Montalbano’s arancini, or stuffed tomatoes. Or follow the tip at the bottom – save half for another evening
- allow 100g per person, and five times the amount of stock
- it needs a garnish of some kind
- a fabulous tip given to me by Rob Spencer, Chief Operations Manager at Ashburton. “If you want to streamline your week even more, try cooking a double batch of risotto and scooping out half the rice onto a rimmed baking sheet three-quarters of the way through cooking. Then let it cool so it’s ready to go for later in the week, while you finish off the rest on the hob, and serve it then and there. One prep for two meals is a pretty solid formula for good eating with minimal effort.”
and finally do you really have to stir a risotto?:
- if you have an Aga, you can get away with not going through all that stirring. How? Simply add the hot stock, bring to the boil, and cover. Then transfer to the simmering oven for about twenty minutes.
- alternatively, and you don’t have an Aga, consider this:
“The traditional method is to add stock to the rice in small batches and stir constantly until it’s done. This way more starch is rubbed off the rice, leading to a creamier risotto – and more evenly cooked rice. The logic doesn’t quite hold. If you cook the risotto at a low heat in a wide frying pan and stir it just once, as J Kenji López-Alt has demonstrated, you’ll get risotto that’s evenly cooked and no less creamy.”-Killian Fox, The Gannet’s Gastronomic Miscellany
Two more notes. In an ideal world, which it isn’t:
- make your own stock. If you can’t, buy quality stock
- grate the Parmesan at the last minute
NOTE: why use carnaroli rather than anything else?
First of all – it’s better not to use treated rice of any kind because it’s, well, it’s treated and it doesn’t need to be. Treated rice has less starch which is the whole point of the dish.
Arborio contains more starch in its surface layer so that it gives out more starch than it can absorb… this tends to make the rice sticky and starchy rather than creamy.
Carnaroli and Arborio are both ‘superfino’, the largest of the three grades of the risotto rice. Vialone nano is graded as a ‘semifino’ – the smallest grain. But relatively its core is larger, and although it can absorb more liquid, it is more delicate – again in the process of stirring it can become damaged and release more starch. Because it absorbs well it does have the advantage of taking on flavours.
Roma, Baldo, Ribe and Originario don’t have the creaminess of the others. They’re better in soups, or sweet dishes such as rice pudding.
Overall, Carnaroli has the best balance of inner to outer starch. And it’s quite hard to overcook Carnaroli – another advantage.
Heston Blumenthal, in his search of total perfection, lights upon the year-old aged Aquerello brand of carnaroli rice as his ultimate. Naturally enough this is entirely unobtainable in most European and North American countries… in fact anywhere other than Italy – a good excuse for a return trip!
For an authoritative book on risotto, buy Risotto! Risotto! by Valentina Harris
Ideas for what to add to a risotto
- shallots, celery, frozen peas…mascarpone and parsley
- strawberries (yes, indeed, very successful)
- leftover chicken
- Fuchsia Dunlop suggests a pheasant and porcini risotto
- asparagus, peas, wild garlic and Berkswell cheese – a creation of Nicholas Balfe, chef-patron of south London restaurants: Salon, Levan, and Larry’s.
- another idea of Blumenthal’s: in his book In search of total perfection, relates that he got the idea for a finishing touch to his perfect risotto from a friend, the food scientist Harold McGee. “Harold had come across research that had discovered high levels of 2AP in the padanus leaf, or screwpine, a herb used as a flavouring in Asian cooking”. Blumenthal develops a sauce made of warmed crème fraîche whipped with shredded pandan leaf. Amazingly you can find fresh pandan leaf on Amazon if you fancy experimenting with this concept.
What to do with leftover risotto
“I have a few favourite tricks I’ve learnt over the years, mostly from my mother. Refrying yesterday’s risotto, for example, into something that resembles a large pancake. It’s crisp, golden and laced with melted parmesan — just heaven with a runny, golden fried egg on top.”Skye Gyngell, The Financial Times