Learning the technique for making risotto can provide you with a lifetime of satisfying meals. Chef Instructor Bill Briwa shows you how to perfect this dish by changing your perspective to view cooking risotto as a technique, not simply as a recipe.
Learning the technique for making risotto can provide you with a lifetime of satisfying meals, but it is important to think of as a technique, not as a recipe. From start to finish, risotto takes about 18 minutes. There are four parts of a “risotto kit” required for a traditional risotto. Sofrito, or flavor base: The foundational flavors for risotto are usually derived from onion or shallots cooked in butter, celery, garlic, and perhaps a long-cooking, resinous herb, such as thyme, bay leaf, or rosemary. A small amount of chopped ham, sausage, bacon, or pancetta is also appropriate.
This is a transcript from the video series The Everyday Gourmet: Making Great Meals in Less Time. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Sofrito, or flavor base: The foundational flavors for risotto are usually derived from onion or shallots cooked in butter, celery, garlic, and perhaps a long-cooking, resinous herb, such as thyme, bay leaf, or rosemary. A small amount of chopped ham, sausage, bacon, or pancetta is also appropriate.
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Risotto is made with a specific type of rice. Arborio, carnaroli, or vialone nano are all appropriate rices for making risotto. There are some small differences in these rices, but the main one has to do with the balance between two different types of starch, amylose and amylopectin. The more amylopectin in the rice, the stickier and starchier it will be, while a higher amount of amylose will yield a slightly firmer rice that holds its shape more readily. Coincidentally, both medium- and long-grain rices have higher amounts of amylose than their short-grained kin.
This is the liquid component in which the rice cooks. It can be vegetable stock, chicken broth, beef stock, clam juice, fish stock, wine, or even fruit juice. It should be hot (just at a simmer) to make the preparation go more quickly; you should have three to four times as much broth by volume as rice; and the broth should be tasty and properly seasoned.
The condimenti or garniture often simply refers to the finishing ingredients, such as a knob of butter and a grating of cheese, but it may also include whipped cream; flavored compound butters; diced lobster or ham; tender and aromatic herbs that require little cooking; delicate vegetables, such as English peas or early-spring asparagus; sautéed wild mushrooms; roasted squash; or any number of other delicious add-ins, many of which might just be leftovers from a previous meal. If you think of risotto as a pasta—and that’s really not too much of a stretch—then such additions as leftover Italian sausage, a little tomato sauce, and a handful of arugula begin to make delicious sense with a dusting of freshly grated Parmesan.
Quick Guide to Rice
Rice comes in varying lengths compared to width. For example, in the United States, we seem to like long-grain rice, which tends to cook up loose and fluffy.
In the eastern Mediterranean, medium-grain rice is used, which is about three times as long as it is wide. This rice cooks up less fluffy and a little sticky unless it is handled correctly. It must be rinsed to remove surface starch and then parched in hot oil so that each grain gets a proper coat of gelatinized starch on the outside and an oily overcoat that will keep each grain distinct from its neighbor.
Short-grain rice is about twice as long as it is wide and cooks up sticky. Many cultures capitalize on this sticky quality. Sushi, for example, holds together because of this stickiness, and this rice is usually just right for eating with chopsticks. Italian risotto gets its characteristic creamy texture and mouthfeel from this same short-grain rice.
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Remarkable Risotto Milanese
Risotto requires your undivided attention—but only for about 20 minutes.
- 1/2 tsp saffron
- 6 1/2 cups hot chicken broth
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 cup minced onion
- 2 cups arborio, carnaroli, or vialone nano rice
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- salt to taste
- 1 tbsp butter cut into bits
- 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Romano
- 2 oz cream (optional)
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
Saffron is the stamen from a small crocus, and each flower has only three threads. Saffron threads lend food a wonderful color, aroma, and flavor. The way to get the most from saffron is to soak it in a little bit of hot liquid before using it in a dish. But make sure the liquid is not a fat. Oil will encapsulate the color and flavor of the saffron, preventing it from transferring to other ingredients.
Begin by soaking the saffron in warm water. Then add it to hot, seasoned chicken stock. The reason the stock is heated is so that when it’s added to the pan, it won’t cool the rice down. For the sofrito—the flavor base—cook the minced onions in butter. Turn the heat up and add the arborio rice, coating it with the flavorful fat.
ake of adding too much liquid all at once, the grains of rice give up their starch too quickly and lose their integrity.
The first addition is white wine. As you stir it in, you’ll notice that the rice absorbs the wine quickly, but the wine doesn’t completely cover the rice. Keep stirring as the mixture comes up to a simmer. By stirring, you’re shearing the starch off the outside of the rice and mixing it with the liquid; you’re also ensuring that the rice cooks evenly. Continue stirring for a minute or two until the liquid is almost completely absorbed.
The next addition is the saffron-flavored stock. You should have about three and a half to four times as much stock as rice by volume. Add the stock, a little at a time, and continue stirring. When you can see the bottom of the pan as you stir, add more stock. As you work, you’ll see the creamy sauce that is the hallmark of great risotto begin to take form. The finished rice should be moist and should just barely hold its shape on a spoon without running or flowing. To test it, bite into a grain. If you can see any chalky core, the rice is not fully cooked; the same holds true for pasta.
From start to finish, risotto takes about 18 minutes. If you don’t have that much time, you can practice “risotto interruptus”: After you’ve added half the liquid, take the risotto out of the pan to cool. To finish the part-cooked risotto, warm it, introduce more hot stock, and start the stirring process again. The second round should take about 10 minutes. You might try this if you’re making risotto and you want to save some for a subsequent meal.
When the risotto is done, stir in some butter, which will make the rice shine a bit and make it slightly looser, and cheese. Season it with salt and pepper. If you’re serving this risotto by itself, you might add some peas to give it color.