Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

January-February 2007
© 2006 by Bret S. Beall


For years, I avoided making risotto, because every single chef on TV, and every single cookbook author, made the process seem too complicated and difficult. It sounded time-consuming and expensive, and it was almost as if this "risotto cult" existed and strove to keep the rest of us out.

One year, a client gave me a gift basket that included Arborio rice. I took that as a sign to make risotto. I skimmed at least a dozen printed recipes for risotto (no one offered a basic theoretical recipe; every single recipe was a "specialty risotto") and synthesized the basics. Lo and behold, my basic risotto recipe was easy and delicious ... it was Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

I have tweaked it over the years, keeping some of the traditional elements, and adapting others. I love to experiment with risotto, particular in the autumn and winter when risotto makes a hearty (and tasty!) lunch or dinner (because it's done on the stove, risotto also makes a great late spring or summer dish, in order to take advantage of the abundance of seasonal produce). Did you know that risotto also freezes quite well, with only a slight loss of texture? It sure does!

Here is that simple basic version followed by a discussion of its components and many ideas for variations.

Basic Risotto

In a one-quart saucepan, heat the stock to a simmer. While stock is heating, place the olive oil in a separate one-quart saucepan over medium high heat. When hot, add the onions, and sauté until the onions are translucent. Add the rice and salt, and stir to coat with oil. Continue cooking and stirring until rice becomes white and opaque (the onion may caramelize a bit by this time, and that adds another dimension of flavor). Add the wine, and stir until it is absorbed by the rice; you will notice the wine becoming cloudy, as starch is knocked off the rice by the stirring, which is what risotto technique is all about, generating creaminess from knocked off starch particles. Start adding the simmering stock in about ½ c increments using a ladle, stirring the stock and rice mixture with a large spoon until the grains absorb the stock. When the rice is almost dry, add another ladleful of stock, and continue stirring. When the stock is about 3/4 gone, taste the risotto to determine how much more stock, stirring and cooking are needed; the grains should be soft with a resistant interior, which usually takes about 30 minutes. Keep adding stock until that texture is achieved. In addition to rice texture, the overall risotto texture is an important variable. Some people like it relatively dry and stiff, while others like it loose and soupy; there is no right or wrong, but I admit that when I stop the cooking, I like it to be just a bit soupy so that I can easily add the additional ingredients, as well as enjoy the creaminess that characterizes really well-prepared risotto. So, when you've achieved the proper rice and risotto textures, turn off the heat, add the butter (if using; this process is called "mounting" the risotto), pepper, cheese, and vinegar, and stir to integrate. Serve immediately, with additional cheese grated on top if desired.

If you need to step away briefly during the stirring process, that's OK. However, you don't want to abandon the risotto, because you are cooking on medium high heat (it might burn), plus, as I wrote above, it is the stirring that creates that creamy consistency that everyone loves. I've also read caveats about not adding "too much" stock at one time. That's relative, as I've added an entire cup at a time without problems, but it is important to keep the grains from swimming so that they can abrade against one another in order to knock off bits of starch to create the creaminess.

Now let's look at each component, and its variations. The number one key to successful risotto is to make sure that each component has as much flavor as possible individually, so that when combined, the resulting risotto will be truly flavorful. You can have so much fun experimenting with different combinations, and now that you see how easy risotto can be, you won't be scared to create your own combinations.

Rice: Traditionally, Arborio or Carnaroli rice is used in Italian risottos. These are pricey ingredients, and I'm always on the lookout to find reasonable substitutes for pricey ingredients. I believe I have found a suitable substitute in medium grain white rice. Available for a fraction of the cost, medium grain rice will produce the creaminess that is so desired very well. The final version doesn't really have the "tooth" that traditional risotto has, but that's a small trade-off.

Wine: Whenever you see someone demonstrate risotto preparation, there is an emphasis to "only use wine that you would drink." I've said this before, but it's time for a reminder. This warning originally related to a Prohibition era product called "cooking wine," which was real wine that had been heavily salted to prohibit drinking it. Once Prohibition was lifted, real wine could be used in cooking, and professional chefs and cooking instructors were zealous in discouraging the use of cooking wine, as it throw off the salt balance of a recipe. These days, cooking demonstrators employ the "only use wine that you would drink" to encourage the use of top quality wines. This does a great disservice to both the fine wine, and the home cook who may not have the financial means to dump a volume of fine wine into a recipe. When cooking something like risotto, with its myriad flavor components, the subtle qualities of a fine wine will be lost, so there's no point in using it. I use inexpensive jug wines for my risottos and other cooking, and I encourage you to do the same; they have the appropriate base flavor, and even add a hint of sweetness sometimes that is undetectable in the final dish, but which rounds out the entire flavor profile. I also use both red and white wines when making risotto; dry white wine is traditional, but my experimentation has show that a dry red is a great addition to certain types of risotto. As a side note, be aware that Marcella Hazan, the doyenne of Italian cooking, does not use wine in her risotto recipes.

Oil: Butter is usually used in traditional risottos. Some authors encourage using vegetable oil. I prefer olive oil because of its flavor. As with the wine, there's no need to use a top quality extra-virgin olive oil, as the subtleties will be lost. I use an affordable virgin or extra virgin olive oil for most cooking, including making risotto.

Onion: I usually use yellow onions, because they are always on hand, and have a nice sharp flavor that accentuates the dish. You can use any type of onion that you have available, be it red or white or yellow, or Maui or Vidalia, or scallions, or shallots, or leeks, or try using fennel for a truly unusual risotto.

Stock: I have used all kinds of stock when making risotto: beef, pork, chicken, duck, fish, salmon, even vegetable. Just make sure that your stock is well-flavored (properly salted and seasoned), so that it tastes good all by itself. If the stock isn't stellar, the risotto will be a dud. I always use homemade stock (which can be made ahead of time and frozen), so that I can brown the bones or vegetables first before adding the water, which creates a whole new dimension of flavor. Recently, I created an entirely vegan risotto using a very intense brew of rooibos (red tea, from South Africa); the result, with maitake mushrooms, was rich, deep and luxuriant. I haven't tried other teas, but there's no reason you couldn't experiment with them. I also want to comment on the volume of stock. I wrote above that risotto should retain a firm interior to each grain of rice (al dente). However, whenever I present al dente risotto to guests, they complain about the firm center. So, I have increased the volume of stock in order to soften the interior more than al dente.

Cheese: All classic risottos are made with Parmigiano reggiano. A less-distinguished parmesan can be used. I usually use pecorino romano. Asiago will work. So will any other hard grating cheese. You can experiment with other cheeses if you like; I've added fresh goat cheese with tremendous success.

Vinegar/Citrus: First, let me emphasize that you will NEVER find this addition in a traditional Italian risotto. But, I can assure you that this flavor component takes risotto to a whole new level. The wine added at the beginning adds a slight "sharpness" initially, but that mellows during the preparation of the risotto. A dinner guest once suggested that my roasted duck and squash risotto, while delicious, had only a single "note." I countered by adding a slosh of balsamico (industriale grade, the cheap commercial stuff), and it put the dish over the top! This is why I do "guinea pig" dinners for friends … feedback can enhance creativity! Now I always add vinegar or citrus at the very end of preparing a risotto … and it's always over the top!

"Add Ins": This is a sloppy category, both in name and practice. You can add ANYTHING to a risotto. It's a great way to use leftovers. One cup of add-ins is usually sufficient, but two cups creates a heartier, and chunkier, dish. I prefer to avoid raw ingredients (except for seafood, which must be added raw, except scallops … see discussion below), because it's so difficult to coordinate cooking the add-in with the cooking of the rice; I cook the add-ins to their peak flavor preparation level, including making sure they are in bite-size pieces, and add them when the risotto is almost done, just to heat them up (and that's when you add the seafood, as well, so that it is just barely cooked). Great additions to risotto are: sautéed or roasted mushrooms (white, crimini, morels, chanterelles, maitake, or your favorite), roasted veggies (squash, sweet potatoes, red peppers, beets, garlic, onions, fennel, or your favorite), sautéed vegetables (broccoli, leeks, bell peppers, or your favorite), poultry (well-cooked and/or leftover chicken, turkey, duck, etc.), seafood (shrimp, squid, salmon, halibut, lobster, or your favorite; scallops don't work very well unless seared prior to adding; avoid canned tuna or anchovies, as they prove too fishy), or meat (your favorite cooked meat, whether a roast, or braised short ribs, or cubed pan-seared chops, or crumbled bacon, or bitesized cooked prosciutto, pancetta, or salami, or another favorite). The possibilities are endless.

Other flavorings: If you like, you can add herbs and spices. For example there is the classic Italian Risotto alla Milanese. It comes in hundreds of variations, but the upshot is to add about 1/8 mounded teaspoon of saffron threads (crumbled) into the basic risotto above about midway through the addition of stock. That allows the saffron to flavor the entire dish, but doesn't allow time for the flavor to fade. You might add some nutmeg if you are using roasted squash, pumpkin or sweet potatoes. Thyme and/or rosemary are nice with roasted/sautéed mushrooms. A cup of raw arugula or ½ c of torn fresh basil is also nice. I don't see a need for other herbs or spices, but if you want to add them, go for it.

Here I'm sharing just a few particularly successful combinations of ingredients:

Use risotto as a base for pan-seared salmon (or other fish/seafood), or osso bucco (Risotto alla Milanese is the classic accompaniment here) or Italian pot roast, or prime rib, or roast pork, or even a mixture of roasted veggies or your favorite marinara or Bolognese sauce.

As you can see in the Variations section, I love shrimp risotto, especially with red wine. It was an unusual discovery of deliciousness. THAT is the take-home message: experiment! Once you have the basic risotto technique down, try adding all sorts of ingredients. This is where the art of risotto merges with the science of technique.

Let me know about your risotto efforts. I'd love to hear about your own combinations of ingredients. Experimentation is exciting, and I thrive on hearing about other's experiments. If you need some more guidance, I can be booked via 773.508.9208 or email. Now go out and master this rich, regal risotto!