Risotto is a simple rice dish elevated to ambrosia by the presence of a simple starchy sauce. Encouraged by judicious additions of wine and stock, the starch in the rice is transformed into a velvety, creamy sauce that clings to the toothsome grains.
Obviously, the rice is the key to a textually flawless risotto. I found that medium-grain rice is the best choice for risotto, where I want some starchiness but not too much. But not all medium grain rice is the same. I found that the risotto technique may be used with non-Italian medium-grain rice, but the finished texture will pale in comparison to risotto made with Italian rice, which provides the best contrast between supple sauce and firm, toothsome rice. I think Italian rice is a must.
The Italian rice used for risotto comes in two grades: superfino and fino. These varieties include Arborio (the most widely available), Carnaroli, and Vialone Nano. Those liking firmer rice grains should choose Arborio, and those liking softer, creamier rice should choose Carnaroli. I think Vialone is too soft and has a “pasty” texture, as if the grains lacks a firm center. A friend told me that Vialone Nano is most popular in and around Venice, where a decidedly loose, soupy texture is the desired consistency for risotto.
Luckily, risotto is so popular that most markets carry at least one brand of Italian rice, generally Arborio. Because this rice is so widely available, I call for it in my recipes. If you like a softer, creamier rice and can find Carnaroli, buy it; it can be used in my recipes as well.
Having good-quality rice is only half the battle; cooking is the rest. After countless batches, I have become certain about a few points. First, slowly cooking the diced onion until it yields its juices and maintains a firm form is imperative to the final flavor and texture. The sweetness of properly cooked onion lends depth to this dish, and the softened onion melts into the risotto by serving time. The next step is sautéing the rice, which prompts the starches in the rice to turn translucent – a good visual clue for adding liquid. When I did not cook the rice prior to adding liquid, the risotto was mushy and chalky, and the rice grains lacked their distinctive toothsomeness.
Once the rice is toasted, the liquids are added. The wine must be added before the broth so the boozy flavor has a chance to cook off. Otherwise, I find the alcohol punch is too much. Virtually all risottos are made with a light, dry white wine (although there are some regional specialities made with red wine). Risotto made without wine lacks dimension and tastes bland, so don’t skip this step.
The recipes I researched offered a wide range of options for broth, from plain water to veal stock. Water did little for me, and veal stock is rare in all but the best-provisioned professional kitchens. Straight beef broth and chicken broth proved too intense, but diluting chicken broth with an equal amount of water is just right. The chicken broth adds richness and depth without taking over. I found that homemade stock is preferable to commercial broth, but the latter still makes a good risotto.
On an interesting note, several prominent cookbook authors suggests using bouillon cubes, but I found that the cubes muddied the risotto’s clean flavor. I can only assume that the quality of Italian bouillon cubes is superior than what I have found on my grocer’s shelves.
Although this is contrary to conventional wisdom and the instructions in most cookbooks, I discovered that constant stirring is unnecessary. I add half the broth once the wine has cooked off and allow the rice to simmer for about 10 minutes, or half the cooking time, with little attention. The rice floats freely, individual grains suspended by the bubbling broth. During this period, I stir the rice infrequently – about every three minutes – to ensure that is is not sticking to the bottom of the pan. Once all the broth is absorbed by the rice, I add more, a scant half cup at a time. For this period, stirring every minute or so is important; if I did not, the rice would stick to the bottom of the pan.
There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding the doneness of risotto. Some insist it should have a chalky, solid bite, while others feel it should be soft to the core. So you must taste as the rice nears completion and decide for yourself. Generally, I begin tasting the rice after about 20 minutes of cooking; you can always cook it longer for a softer texture, but you can never bring back bite.
For the final touch, Parmesan goes in at the very end, to preserve its distinctive flavor and aroma. Grated cheese is best, as it melts almost instantaneously. The quality of the cheese is paramount, as its taste is so prominent. This is the perfect occasion for buying authentic Parmesan freshly cut from the wheel, with its branded trademark boldly displayed on the rind.
For my Parmesan Risotto recipe (and some variations), please click HERE.