Making a good risotto is rather like riding a bicycle: It takes a little bit of practice to begin with, and a certain amount of concentration thereafter. Risotti are also very sensitive to timing, and this is why what is served in a restaurant (no matter how good it is) will rarely display that rich texture and just-right doneness that a good homemade risotto will.
When buying rice to make a risotto, choose short-grained round or semi-round rice; among the best rices for making risotti are Arborio, Vialone Nano, and Carnaroli. Other short-grained rices such as Originario will also work. Long-grained rice such as Patna won't do because the grains will stay separate. Nor should you use minute rice (parboiled/precooked rice)—it won't absorb the condiments, and again the grains will remain separate.
Almost all risotti are made following the same basic procedure, with minor variations:
- Begin by mincing a small volume of onion and whatever other herbs the recipe calls for.
- Saute the mixture in abundant olive oil or unsalted butter, and when it has browned, remove it with a slotted spoon to a plate, leaving the drippings in the pot.
- Stir in the rice and saute it until it becomes translucent (this will take 7 to 10 minutes), stirring constantly to keep it from sticking.
- Return the sautéed seasonings to the pot and stir in 1/3 cup of dry white or red wine that you have previously warmed (if it is cold, you will shock the rice, which will flake on the outside and stay hard at the core).
- Once the wine has evaporated completely, add a ladle of simmering broth; stir in the next ladleful before all the liquid is absorbed because if the grains get too dry, they will flake.
- Continue cooking, stirring and adding broth as the rice absorbs it, until the rice barely reaches the al dente stage (if you want your risotto firm, time your additions of broth so that the rice will finish absorbing the broth when it reaches this stage; if you want it softer, time the additions so there will still be some liquid left).
- At this point, stir in 1 tablespoon of butter and the grated cheese (if the recipe calls for it), cover the risotto, and turn off the flame. Let it sit, covered, for 2 to 3 minutes, and serve.
If you want a richer risotto, stir in a scant quarter cup of heavy cream in addition to the butter. Risotto that has had cream stirred into it called mantecato, and is remarkably smooth.
A Brief Aside
Since writing the above, I had occasion to talk with Gabriele Ferron, who produces Vialone Nano, one of Italy's finest rices and is also an excellent chef (he travels the world giving risotto demonstrations in top restaurants).
His risotto technique differs somewhat from the classic technique described above. He begins by browning the onion (or leek or whatever) in olive oil, never butter, and once it has browned he removes lest it burn and become bitter as he fries the rice, a process that takes about 10 minutes over a moderate flame while stirring constantly. Then he returns the onion to the rice and adds the wine, which he has previously heated—"if you add cold wine you shock the rice, which will flake on the outside and stay hard at the core," he says. He then lets the wine evaporate completely before adding the remaining ingredients, and the broth, which he adds all at once, rather than a ladle at a time. He then covers the rice and lets it cook gently for about 15 minutes, stirring in a little more broth at the end that combines with the starch the rice gives off, giving it a creamy texture. Then does whatever last-minute things need doing and serves it.
No butter, and no cream at the end, ever. He is able to cook his risotto this way because he knows his rice—Vialone Nano absorbs 1.5 (if I recall correctly) times its volume in liquid, so that's what he adds. The bottom line is, you may not be able to adopt his cooking method if you are using a rice you have never tried before, but once you have a feel for the volume of water the rice will absorb to reach the degree of doneness you like, his method will give you consistently good results. And his suggestions regarding wine temperature and removing the onions from the pot after they have browned are valid in any case.
If you are making a risotto with a fairly moist ingredient that won't take well to being fried with the rice, for example squash, fresh mushrooms, or various kinds of meat, use the two-pan technique that's adopted around Ferrara, among other places. Prepare the intingolo, in other words the sauce part with the moist ingredients, in one pot, and once it is cooking start sauteing the onions and rice (remove the onions once they have browned if you want) in a second pot; once the rice is translucent add the warmed wine (return the onions to the pot at this point if you removed them), followed by the first ladle of broth once the wine has evaporated. When the rice is half-cooked add the intingolo, which should be at about the same stage of doneness, and finish cooking the risotto as you would normally.
You may be wondering how rice got to Italy.
It was introduced by the Arabs who dominated Sicily and parts of the southern mainland in the late Middle Ages (arancini di riso come to mind), but proved best suited to the vast marshy regions of the Po Valley, where it was enthusiastically adopted by the residents of the Veneto, Lombardia, and Piemonte regions.
Edited by Danette St. Onge