Velvety, nostalgic, and needy, risotto is a lot like love. Much like the all-consuming, heart-hurting first encounter with the powerful emotion, your first bite of a perfect risotto will haunt you forever. You’ll try to replicate it, hunting it down on menus and sweating over the stove to have one more delight-filled mouthful. And just like love, the kind that endures, that creamy yet textured, luscious and balanced taste of risotto has been carefully worked, ardently watched, and patiently nurtured. No matter how tedious the process, risotto, when done just right, will fill your soul and build a cozy corner for itself to live in your heart for the rest of your days. We’ve put together a little guide to help bring this beloved friend into your home on a regular basis.
The first bridge to cross when it comes to making risotto is shifting your mindset. Instead of picturing risotto as a scary crush that you can’t approach, start thinking about how you might be able to romance it. First, pick a playlist that’ll get you in the mood…for cooking, maybe Gloria Estefan, Sinatra, or Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. Next, since you’ll be using it to cook, you might as well pour yourself a glass of wine and enjoy every moment you get alone with your risotto.
As you carefully warm the stock and begin to saute the shallots and rice in butter and oil, allow the wooden spoon to dance along the bottom of the pan to the beat of the music, carefully keeping each plump kernel from clinging to the pan. Allow the steam to warm your face when you deglaze the pot with wine and watch as it slowly incorporates into the rice. With each addition of broth, let your body connect to the process and stir with tender care. Soon enough, you’ll be showering your dish with freshly grated cheese and sitting down to a bowl full of bliss.
For the best results, you want something short-grained with a high starch content. The shorter, rounder grains absorb liquid more readily, releasing starch to create the creamy texture and sauce we all know and love risotto for. There are different schools of thought on which rice varieties are best, but the four main types used in Italy are: Arborio, Carnaroli, Maratelli, and Vialone Nano. While Arborio is the most internationally recognized, Carnaroli, its plumper cousin, has a higher starch content and creates a luscious risotto while maintaining that al dente bite that distinguishes a great risotto from a good one. Vialone Nano, a much rounder grain, absorbs liquid much more quickly than other varieties, producing a silken texture. One of Italy’s oldest grain varieties, Maratelli retains its shape throughout the cooking process, making for a sturdier grain in the final product. At the end of the day, it’s all dependent on your preference. Our favorite is Carnaroli.
While your rice choice certainly plays a role, your technique is what determines the quality of your final product. Low and slow is the mantra to remember from start to finish; you are earning that risotto’s love. This is why your mindset is so crucial: if you want it to be great, it will take time. The velvety sauce that you’re hoping for develops over time as each grain of rice slowly releases starch while simultaneously absorbing liquid. To maintain the integrity of the grain, doing this at a lower temperature is essential. Similarly, the use of a wooden spoon helps to carefully move the rice without breaking it apart, keeping your risotto from burning as it slowly cooks. Carefully sauteing the rice with shallots and seasoning in butter and oil allows the grains to absorb their flavors and create depth to your final product, while adding a squeeze of lemon right at the end brightens this otherwise very rich dish.
Once you’ve mastered a basic recipe, the world of risotto will open its doors and beckon you in to serve as a canvas for your favorite flavors. Filled with earthy, umami goodness from wild mushrooms, bright and fresh with spring picked asparagus, or filling your plate with the salty tastes of the sea, risotto is the perfect vessel for the expression of fresh ingredients.
Perfect as a standalone dish, it also serves as a beautiful side. Creating a luscious nest to capture the rich, deeply nuanced flavors of braised osso bucco, or serving as a savory accompaniment to pan-seared lake trout with fresh herbs and bright lemon, risotto rounds out the best of meals.
Rolled into bite size balls, coated with crispy bread crumbs and fried in sizzling oil, risotto transforms into a delicious appetizer or finger food to serve during a party in the guise of arancini. A favorite street food throughout Sicily, arancini are deep fried, stuffed balls of our favorite rice dish. Crispy on the outside and filled with ooey, gooey, delicious bursts of goodness, arancini can be served on a tray, eaten on the go, or dipped into a warm marinara served alongside a fresh Aperol Spritz. Really, there’s never a bad time for deep fried risotto.
Flavorful, savory, creamy, and delicious, in many ways, risotto is a perfect food. Once you’ve romanced it and learned how to ease its challenges, there’s no reason not to keep it around. Trust us, you’ll start to look forward to the time you get alone in the kitchen, peacefully stirring, and carefully watching in a trance-like ritual as the delicate, plump kernels of rice transform before you.