The Perfect Risotto

Risotto has become one of the most popular elements of Italian cuisine and for good reason - it is a versatile, comforting and sexy dish.  Cooking it is fun and challenging.  It requires thought and attention - and a bit of adrenalin at the end (you'll see why)!  If you want to make the perfect risotto there are some fundamentals to learn.  Forget about recipes and measurements for now - what is important is the method.

Risotto does not refer to the rice but to the method.  This distinction is important these days especially with creative cooks applying the same method to other grains and foods such as barley and potatoes.  Depending on who you ask, risotto is either easy or difficult.  More often than not the first-timer can pull it off with an edible result.  Even an overcooked risotto is satisfying if flavoured well enough (and in fact is often used to make risotto "cakes", but that's another article).  Make no mistake though - a perfectly executed risotto can change lives!  If you want to impress a date, a good risotto will almost certainly score some points.

So now the question is do you want to learn how to make merely a decent risotto - or a perfect one?  If you want the latter then read on.  It might not happen the first time, and as with anything, practice makes perfect.

Most risottos comprise the following elements:

  1. a stock (good quality, preferable home-made)
  2. a fat such as olive oil and/or butter
  3. onions or shallots (diced to about the size of a rice kernel)
  4. proper rice (a few styles of "risotto" rice such as carnaroli or arborio)
  5. wine (depending on your ingredients)
  6. flavourings and ingredients (blanched or easy enough to cook fast)
  7. butter (cubed and cold)
  8. cheese (one that you can grate; parmigiano is most popular)

Here is the basic method and it takes about 20 minutes:

  1. Have ready the following: a) a simmering stock and b) your ingredients and flavourings.
  2. Sweat off shallots or onions in the fat (careful not to brown).
  3. Stir in the rice and toast until hot to the touch.
  4. Add the wine and let it cook off a minute or so.
  5. Begin to add stock a little at a time (each time just enough to submerge the rice but no more than that, and then let it absorb and evaporate until the rice is nearly dry again.  This process continues until the rice is just about "al dente".  All this time the cooking is at about a very low simmer and you are stirring with a wooden spoon.
  6. At this point add the flavourings and main ingredients and allow those to heat in the risotto.
  7. Now this is the moment of truth!  In a matter of seconds you are looking to get the proper seasoning, consistency of the rice, taste of cheese and butter, and moisture of the dish.  Stir in the cheese and remove from the heat completely.  Stir in the butter until melted.  Taste for salt and pepper and adjust the moisture with stock.
  8. You are looking to achieve a rich, well seasoned dish with a consistency that will produce a little jiggle when you move the dish.
  9. Serve and eat immediately.

Now that was the basic method, which will get you a proper risotto.  To take it to that "next level" here are some tips on what I do to ensure the best risotto possible:

  • use a flavourful stock with body (although more difficult with vegetable stocks); for example, I roast my bones for meat stocks and make sure the stock gels when cold, indicating "body"
  • don't burn the onions or shallots as this may impart a bitter flavour
  • when adding wine, move the rice to one side so that the wine gets hot fast and the rice does not get a cold shock
  • risotto is as versatile as pasta, so experiment with flavours and ingredients; I like to add fresh herbs at the end
  • balance out flavours and textures as with most dishes
  • cheese and butter may split at the end which renders the risotto oily and less creamy; this is why temperature control at the end is essential
  • be careful with too much liquid because some friction is required to break down the rice a little (this is what contributes to the creaminess
  • practice will make perfect; it is with practice that you will master things like the timing at the end, the seasoning, the right amount of butter and cheese, the consistency, the right amount of stirring as to not break down the rice too much - but just enough

So there it is.  I guess you can say it is easy once you master the difficult parts!

Please send me feedback.  I would love to hear about your attempt!