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A perfectly cooked risotto and a poorly cooked risotto have almost nothing in common. It’s like comparing pizza from Naples with a frozen pizza bagel.
A perfect risotto is creamy and rich, yet it has an ethereal quality to it. It should be light, delicate, and just a touch decadent.
The way to cook the perfect risotto is by coaxing as much starch as possible out of the rice during the cooking process. When the rice releases a maximum amount of starch, it's not necessary to add copious amounts of butter and cheese to the risotto in order to achieve a creamy texture. These ingredients can (and should!) be added in moderation, and they bring balance and subtlety to the dish.
There are no shortcuts to achieving the perfect risotto. You'll get there only by being mindful of a number of small details, and by stirring constantly while patiently standing over a steaming cauldron for approximately 18 minutes.
Master how to make a simple Risotto alla Parmigiana, and you'll internalize the ideal risotto technique—and all future risottos that you make will be more delicious.
The first thing to consider is the rice. There are three varieties of risotto rice that are commonly found in the United States. Arborio rice is the most common type of risotto rice. It is a short-grain rice that yields a typical creamy risotto. Vialone Nano, which comes from the Veneto region of Italy, is known for absorbing more liquid than Arborio rice. It is commonly used to make seafood risotto. Perhaps the most heralded rice variety is Carnaroli. Carnaroli rice is medium-grained, and it is famous for producing the creamiest risotto while being resistant to overcooking. But all of them will make a creamy risotto if tended to carefully!
When you're ready to start cooking, select the right size pot. You want the rice to cook in a single even layer, so choose a pot that is both large and wide. If the pot is overcrowded with too much rice, it will not release as much starch, and the quality of your risotto will suffer.
Once you start cooking the risotto, you can't really step away from the stove, so it's a good idea to prep your other ingredients ahead of time: Finely dice half of a small yellow onion (the cut onion pieces should be no bigger than a kernel of rice), finely grate some Parmigiano cheese, cube some butter, and have a bottle of white wine next to you. For every half pound of rice that you make, you can count on using approximately 1/8 pound finely grated Parmigiano and 4 to 6 tablespoons of butter.
While you are prepping your ingredients, you should let a large pot of water come to a boil. What's the water for? Well, you might already know that risotto rice is cooked by adding one large ladleful of boiling liquid to the rice at a time, and stirring constantly as the liquid reduces. I am a huge proponent of using water instead of chicken stock or vegetable stock while cooking risotto. The stock will concentrate as it cooks, and I find that the flavor of concentrated stock will detract from the finished dish rather than add something valuable. You can use lobster stock for a lobster risotto or mushroom stock for a mushroom risotto, but don't blindly use chicken stock or vegetable stock for every risotto you make. The rice has its own subtle flavor, which shouldn't be masked by a concentrated stock.
When your water is boiling, throw just a few pieces of cubed butter into the empty risotto pot. Set the heat to medium and melt the butter. Add the diced onion and cook it, stirring regularly, until the onion begins to soften and turn translucent. Add rice until it fills the bottom of the pot in a single even layer. Stir regularly, until the individual kernels of rice feel warm to the touch. This step is called “toasting the rice.” You do not want to literally toast the rice (you should actually avoid browning either the onions or the rice). Toasting the rice simply helps it to release more starch when liquids are introduced to the pot. And remember, every step of this process is designed to help the rice release as much starch as possible.
When the rice is warm to the touch,turn the heat to high, and add a hearty splash of white wine. Starting now, the rice will take approximately 18 minutes to cook, and you must not stop stirring the rice. I use a long wooden spoon to do this, because it helps me scrape the bottom of the pot and prevent any rice from sticking and browning, which you definitely want to avoid. The heat underneath the risotto pot and the boiling water should both be as high as possible. The hotter these pots are, the more starch will be released by the rice.
When the wine has almost fully evaporated, add one large ladleful of boiling water to the rice. Never stop stirring the rice. The rice should be dancing in the pot. In order to coax the rice into releasing the maximum amount of starch, you want to add just enough water to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot—but don't drown the rice. The rice will be thirsty for more water, but the longer you can cook and stir the rice without adding additional water, the creamier your risotto will be. Only add more water when you feel the rice beginning to stick to the bottom of the pot.
Keep cooking the rice, adding water one large ladleful at a time as necessary. After about 15 minutes of cooking, season the risotto with salt and taste a grain of rice. When the rice tastes al dente, like a perfectly cooked pasta, remove it from the heat. At 15 minutes, the rice might not be perfectly cooked yet, but it will be close. Keep tasting. You don't want the rice to be completely soft and mushy. It should still have a little bite to it.
When the rice is almost perfectly cooked, start adding half-ladles of water instead of full ones. Ideally, you want the risotto to be perfectly cooked at the exact moment when the last ladleful of water has almost fully evaporated. Remove the risotto from the heat when it is not too soupy and not too tight.
In order to test if your finished risotto is too soupy, too tight, or just right, you can place a small serving on a flat plate. Tilt the plate at a sharp downward angle. If your risotto is too soupy, it will run down the plate and fall on the floor. If the risotto is too tight, it will stay in a clump in the middle of the plate. The perfect risotto will flow slowly like molten lava down the plate without falling.
Once the risotto has been removed from the heat, add the cubed butter and finely grated Parmigiano. Stir vigorously. Taste the risotto and adjust with salt as necessary. I like to add a few drops of white wine vinegar to my Risotto alla Parmigiana, because the acidity helps bring balance to this rich and savory dish.
Tell us about the best risotto you ever had—and share your tricks for making it—in the comments.