How to make the perfect risotto
Updated: Nov 28, 2020
The basic (and advanced!) real technique is always the same: you can use the steps below to work through any risotto recipe and always reach optimum results.
Risotto is one of the most famous Italian dishes – no other country has in its tradition the same method of cooking rice, and your choice of the basic ingredients will either make or break any risotto. This is a lengthy post, however the risotto takes only 20 minutes from start to finish.
The first of the 8 secrets is that there is no point in following the best recipe in the world if the rice is not the right one.
1. “Risotto Rice” is what you need to use all the time. This is a short grain variety that is very high in starch content. The grains are thick with wide ends (compared against the tapered small ends of the long basmati rice grain, for example): the thick ends of risotto rice allow for the surrounding heat to cook the grain extracting from it as much starch as possible. It is the shape of the grain, the starch content and the cooking technique that will achieve the typical creamy texture of risotto. The best varieties are (in order): Carnaroli (it does not overcook), Vialone Nano (smaller grain, so it cooks faster – it also absorbs condiments better), Arborio (grown in the Po’ Valley and by far the most popular of the varieties).
It is important and not often mentioned in recipes, that if you are scaling up the recipe to accommodate more people, then you will add 1 small cup of raw rice per person. The broth quantity you will be using will also have to be increased proportionally.
2. Choose the right broth. Do not use stock cubes for risotto if you can, as it will always be a tell-tale. Home made broth will need to be used (and there is a full section on how to make it HERE). Vegetable, Chicken, Beef, Fish, Seafood broth – choose according to your recipe.
Make sure to work with two hobs one adjacent to the other: on the hob right in front of you, you’ll have the pot with the risotto, while the pot with the broth will be on the hob to your left (or to your right if you are left-handed).
3. Get the soffritto right. Soffritto is the Italian for “stir fry” of specific vegetables: onion, garlic (at times), small carrot and celery (at times): it must consist of an amount of ingredients that makes sense with the overall quantity of the risotto, but never use too much carrot as it will be too sweet, likewise go easy with the garlic when using it. This is something that depends to taste enormously, however if you are new to risottos, or if the kind of soffritto you are using is of a different type than the one you’re used to, please just follow accurately your recipe.
Finely chop - never mince - your vegetables (onions, sometimes garlic, sometimes a small portion of the main ingredient of your recipe), then stir fry it in very hot olive oil.
Keep in mind that the garlic takes seconds to cook and it is usually added as the very last ingredient of the soffritto (for the majority of other recipes the garlic needs to be added first). Use garlic mainly with fish risotto and mushroom risotto instead of onions, and in that case leave out all other vegetables.
Should you be using only onions for your soffritto base, the time in which you make or break the soffritto is up to ten seconds between the time in which the onion has become light golden and the time in which you need to add another ingredient.
4. Allow for the “pearl stage” to reach perfection. “Pearling” the risotto happens when you have finished your initial “soffritto”, and to that you add the raw rice (ALL in one go, so prepare it beforehand in a bowl).
When you will stir the rice with your soffritto, while remaining on high heat, the rice will become shiny and a little translucent – like a pearl; keep stirring it for a few seconds in order to absorb as much as possible of the soffritto, without however becoming too dry.
TIP: Here the time between the “pearl stage” to reach perfection, and the time you add the next ingredient should not exceed ever 1 minute. So, part of the success for the “pearling” process consists in having ready the liquid.
5. Wet the pearls. This will stop the pearling process and start the release of the starch. Add a glass of white wine or red wine according to your recipe. Take care as the wine will be absorbed almost instantly, so be ready to proceed with growing the risotto.
6. Grow your risotto: the risotto will grow as it cooks. The broth must be added one ladle-spoon at a time and the pearls will absorb it almost instantly (you want to add enough liquid to reach all the grains, but not so much liquid for the grains to float in it ); add immediately another ladle-spoon and you will notice the rate of absorption diminishes, but it is still fast. Add a third ladle-spoon and from here onward, any ladle-spoon of broth needs to be added more infrequently, while continuously stirring and checking that the liquid has been absorbed (but not completely) by the rice before adding the next one.
7. The Risotto “punto di cottura” (= cooking finish) is achieved without adding any more liquid, but keeping the pot on the heat and continously stirring – allowing for the rice to absorb any excess liquid that remained in the pot. Stop adding the liquid once the rice is quite "al dente" and then ensure to stir it for another minute or two to allow it to finish a absorbing the last of the broth and retaining its creamy texture. Taste it and taste it again to ensure you get it right through the last stages and up to the end.
8. The "mantecatura" (= to reach the final proper creamy texture) of your risotto is the last, masterful touch you should add to your finished risotto. This is typical of Northern Italy, where the dish comes from, and it’s accomplished off the heat by adding a cube (or more if making a lot of risotto) of butter stirring it until it melts completely and until the full risotto becomes nice and shiny. Salted butter works better here. Add a little parmesan at this point (but not if you are making a seafood or fish risotto!), but not too much, to allow your guests to add more parmesan at the table to their taste.
The 2 pitfalls:
The two major mistakes that you may make – and at one point or other you will make each of these for sure, are:
1) over-cooking your “soffritto”, which is not a disastrous mistake, considering that starting again at that point is very easy (providing you have enough of the basic ingredients, of course);
2) serving an overcooked risotto or a sloppy (“soupy”) risotto. If you add that last fateful ladle-spoon of broth (that’s why tasting each time is important at the end) you are faced with a difficult choice: allow for the rice to absorb it all (in which case your risotto will look a perfect risotto, but the rice will be really overcooked and as soon as you put a fork in it, it would look like a mush), or, worse, you can continue to the mantecatura stage, thus serving a very soft, sloppy risotto.
Neither are disastrous, but neither are mistakes you want to make when you are having a dinner party.
The best advice I can give you here is this: if these mistakes have not occurred yet since your very first risotto ever, then do not put it on your important meals menu. You will make these mistakes eventually at home with family or close friends, and once made you'll learn and you will be absolutely certain that you will not make that mistake again.