August 15, 2021

Guide to Making Risotto

Risotto is made out to be a finicky dish. But is it really that complicated?

If you’ve watched cooking shows, you’re probably a bit intimidated by making risotto. It’s even known as the “death dish” in MasterChef Australia for how often they mess it up. 😱

While I’ve been making risotto for a while now, I still decided to take a step back this week and do some research. In the process, I picked up some new tips and reaffirmed some old ones.

But here’s the biggest thing I learned. There is no right way to make risotto. Some “aficionados” preach about what risotto should be—from its consistency to the specific steps you must take. However, in my mind, as long as it’s a creamy rice dish and it tastes delicious, who cares?!?

So don’t sweat it. 😅 You’ll ris-ot-to the occasion! 😉

Here are some pointers to help you along your journey.

Set Your Risotto Up For Success

Picking the Right Rice

While you could pull off a risotto with farro or couscous or even sushi rice, picking a “risotto rice” is one of the rules I can stand by.

Certain types of rice have the right amount of starch for risotto. There’s enough so things turn creamy but not too much that things turn sticky. (Check out this past newsletter if you want to get nerdy about the types of rice and their different starch levels.)

If you’re lucky enough to live in Italy, you probably have choices-on-choices when it comes to picking a rice with the right starch levels. But the rest of us should at least be able to find one of the following:

  • Arborio rice makes for a thick but soft risotto. The grains are typically less distinct as you bite into them. That means it can easily overcook and turn to mush. But even then, it will still be delicious mush. 😋
  • Both Carnaroli and Vialone Nano create a creamy texture, but they’ll also have more chew than Arborio rice. This means that even with an almost soup-like risotto you still get some texture in there. 🙌

You really can’t go wrong with any of the three!

Decide on Your Broth

A bold, thick stock is a thing of beauty. However, keep this in mind. That tasty stock may overpower your risotto.

Rice absorbs flavor. So if you use a bold, flavorful stock when making risotto, you’re going to taste it. And maybe only it. So if your risotto is going to be a simple side that might be a great thing! But if your lemony seafood risotto is going to be the star of dinner, your chicken stock might mask those other flavors.

I prefer using a lighter broth so my risotto can pick up flavor elsewhere. I typically make a quick veggie broth from leftover root ends and veggie scraps that I’ve stored in my freezer. I simply dump them in a pot, cover them with water, and simmer away. (Learn more about making vegetable broth like this.)

Here are some other simple, homemade broth ideas, perfect for risotto:

  • For a seafood risotto, boil the leftover shells of shrimp, clams, etc. in water with a couple of lemon peels. You’ll get a delicious, yet subtle seafood-y broth.
  • For an extra cheesy risotto, make a Parmesan broth. Simply sauté a few chunks of onion and garlic cloves in a pot until they get some color. Next, add a handful of leftover Parmigiano rinds (I store mine in the freezer) and maybe a few sprigs of thyme. Then cover with water. Simmer away until the broth is nice and tasty.
  • Or maybe skip the broth altogether and just use salted water. Then stir in a purée of butternut squash, peas, or even corn right before the rice is done cooking.

Make an Acid Plan

The Italian way is to make sure that wine is the first drink that your risotto gets! 🍷

After you’ve sautéed your aromatics and toasted your rice, you dump in a glass of wine and let it cook-off. And that works!

However, heat can dull flavor. And if the wine is only added at the beginning, the acidity may get washed out by the end. I skip adding wine entirely since I’ve read it may dull other flavors. But I’m not fully convinced that is true.

I am convinced of this though. Beyond the wine, you should consider other places you can sneak acid into your risotto. It’s a creamy, cheesy dish after all. The acid will brighten the other flavors and make it taste lighter.

Here are a few ideas for ways to sneak in acid:

  • Drizzle white balsamic vinegar over it right before serving.
  • Don’t skip using real Parmigiano Reggiano. It’s aged so it will be more acidic than fresh cheeses!
  • Stir in crème fraîche right before serving for a small hit of acid and extra creaminess.
  • Just like everything else, a squeeze of lemon juice always makes it better. 😉

The Steps to Making Risotto

There are all these “rules” about risotto. How you need to constantly stir it for HOURS. How your broth must be at exactly 207℉ (97℃). How you add said broth only a teaspoon at a time. How certain ingredients must be added at specific time intervals while cooking. 🤨 (Okay, some slight exaggeration here.)

But all those rules are BS. The steps for marking risotto aren't as scary or as complicated as they are made out to be.

The way you add your liquid. The amount you stir. They both matter less than you think.

Let’s talk about some general steps you can follow.

1. Saute Aromatics

You can start risotto with onions, garlic, carrots, celery, etc. And those veggies will add flavor to the dish overall. Just add a little fat then dump the veggies in. And cook them until they start to change color. This light browning makes them even more flavorful (learn why browning is the key to flavor).

But sauteing aromatic veggies isn’t a requirement for a good risotto. I’ve read plenty of recipes from folks I trust who don’t add any aromatic veggies. Why? They can mask other flavors.

Here’s how I think about it.

If I’m making a simple risotto, I load up on the aromatics. It will give the risotto a “classic” flavor. It becomes the perfect side to any braised meat.

But otherwise, I keep the aromatics to a minimum. I might only use a quarter of an onion. That is unless I want to go BIG on a specific aromatic flavor. Enter mushroom risotto. 🍄 Cooking down mushrooms at this point is the perfect way to start a fun(gi) risotto. 😉

2. Toast the Rice

Now that your aromatics are starting to pick up some color (or not if you decide to skip them), add your rice. But hold your horses before adding any liquid.

When you give the rice a little bit of time in direct contact with a hot pan, it will develop a wonderful nutty aroma. And that means more flavor!

So toast your rice until it starts to get translucent on the ends and smells nutty. It will probably take around 5 minutes.

3. Cook the Rice

This is where things may get controversial. 😬

Classic risotto recipes start with a touch of wine. But like I talked about before, it’s optional.

So whether you go with wine first or straight to stock, most recipes have you add liquid one ladle at a time. And then once you add the liquid, you stir vigorously! And constantly too! Once most of the liquid cooks off, you add another ladle. And repeat! Stir. Stir. Stir. Pour. Stir. Stir. Stir. Pour. Stir. Stir. Stir. 😩

Here’s the thing. Risotto can actually be pretty hands-off.

First, let’s talk about stirring.

Conventional wisdom says the constant stirring makes the risotto creamier. But most of the creaminess actually comes from the starch in the rice, not the stirring.

J. Kenji López-Alt did an experiment to prove it. He started by soaking two batches of rice in water to remove all of their natural starch. Then he cooked one batch of risotto, constantly stirring it. And then another batch where he didn’t stir it. Guess what? The risotto where he constantly stirred was not creamier than the other! 🤯

But stirring isn’t a complete waste. An occasional stir helps the rice cook evenly. Why? Well, the rice on the bottom—which is in direct contact with the heat source (aka the pan)—will cook faster than the rice on top. So make sure you do some occasional stirring. You just don’t need to feel pressured to stir constantly, counterclockwise, at 3.5 stirs per second, with an oak spoon. This isn’t potions class folks. 🧙

What about adding the liquid?

For starters, you need lots of liquid. It’s one of the reasons risotto is creamier than normal rice. I typically use a ratio of 4-5 cups of liquid to 1 cup of rice. But having 5 cups on hand is a safe bet. You never know if your rice might be a little temperamental that day and need it.

Next, let’s bust a myth. Does the liquid really need to be added slowly, one ladle at a time? Nah.

After reading recipes, learning how chefs in Milan make risotto, and trying it myself, I was sold. Surprisingly, you can dump in a bunch of liquid at once and still end up with a creamy result! There’s just a small trick. Reserve some liquid to add at the end. By that point, the rice will have already absorbed almost all the liquid it can and there won’t be enough time for the extra liquid to cook off. So you’re left with a creamy consistency! 😋

Here’s the technique:

  1. Once you’ve toasted your rice, add in about 75% of your liquid. And give it a quick stir.
  2. Cover the pot and bring it up to a boil before reducing the heat to a simmer.
  3. Let it cook for about 10 minutes, stirring 3-4x during the process.
  4. Cook until the rice tastes almost done, but not soft. You want it to have a little bite to it here since it will continue to cook.
  5. Then add your reserved 25% of liquid. And simmer for a minute until it combines but is still a little soupy. Add more liquid if needed.
  6. Then take the pot off the heat.
That extra liquid you add at the end doesn’t have to be the same liquid you’ve been using to cook the risotto. Use a saffron infused water for Risotto all Milanese. Or try a puree of veggies—like peas blended with veggie broth. Adding it last-minute gives the risotto a prominent boost of that specific flavor!

And remember, just like anything in cooking, adding stock little-by-little does make for a delicious risotto. So if that’s your jam, do it! Why change something that isn’t broken? But now you know it might not be the most efficient way to cook risotto. And if you’re cool with that, I’m cool with that!

4. Add Your Finishing Touches

Once you take the risotto off the heat, that’s when the extra flavor comes in.

Typically it’s in the form of heat cheese and butter. And trust me, always add cheese and butter. 😁 But it could also be whipping cream or crème fraîche.

And it could also be seared shrimp. A handful of herbs. Or roasted butternut squash. I recommend cooking those types of additions separately and then adding them at the end. That gives you more control. You can make sure the add-ins are perfectly cooked and then warm them up in the risotto.

And please, please, please, don't forget: sneak in extra acid!

Where I learned this: risotto recipes from Milk Street, this article on risotto from J. Kenji López-Alt, and The Science of Good Cooking by Cook’s Illustrated.