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The perfect Risotto

Updated: Dec 10, 2023

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. This is a lengthy post, however a risotto takes only 20 minutes from start to finish, although you cannot leave it alone - ever - and need to continuously stir it.

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.

Secret 1:

  • “Risotto Rice” is what you need to use all the time, there is no point in following the best recipe in the world if the rice is not the right one.

  • This is a short grain variety that is very high in starch content. The grains are thick with wide ends (compared with 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 a 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

Secret 2:

  • Choose the right broth. Home made broth will need to be used (and there is a full post 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)

Secret 3:

  • Get the soffritto right. Soffritto is the Italian for “stir fry” of specific vegetables: onion, garlic, carrots, and celery

  • The quantity of your soffritto must make 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 if your recipe asks for it

  • Each recipe will call for a tailored soffritto

    • TIP: Use garlic mainly with seafood/fish risotto and mushroom risotto instead of onions, and leave out all other vegetables

  • Finely chop - never mince - your vegetables

  • Stir fry: always start with the onion and/or garlic first (if using, add the chili flakes at this stage), then add the rest of the vegetables once they are ready

  • Stir fry it first for 2 mins at a high temperature, stirring well

  • If using, add the pepper at this stage

  • TIP: never use salt in a soffritto

  • Lower the temperature to medium-high, then cover with a lid

  • This will allow the vegetables to stew a little in their own steam and get soft quicker

  • OVERALL TIP: never let your soffritto burn. If it happens, start from scratch again, otherwise your risotto will be ruined

Secret 4:

  • Allow for the “pearl stage” to reach perfection. “Pearling” the risotto happens you turn the heat to high, then add the raw rice (ALL in one go, so prepare it measured beforehand) to your soffritto

  • Stir well and keep stirring: the rice will become shiny and a little translucent – like a pearl.

  • It will be ready when all the moisture of the soffritto will be absorbed

  • TIP: the time between the perfect “pearl stage” and the time you add the next ingredient should not exceed ever 1 minute

Secret 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 and stir it continuously

  • Take care as the wine will be absorbed almost instantly, so be ready to proceed with the next step

Secret 6:

  • Grow your risotto: the risotto will grow as it cooks. Keep it on a high heat and use a flat ended wooden spoon

  • 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 )

  • The first and then second ladle spoons of broth will be absorbed rather quickly, but as you proceed you will notice that the rate of absorption diminishes and it will take longer for each ladle spoon to be fully absorbed

  • Never add all the broth at once,  this method allows the amid to be released from the rice, giving it the typical creamy texture, plu the rice will be perfectly cooked before you finish all the measured liquid

  • After 12 mins into this process, start tasting the rice: stop adding broth as soon as the rice is "al dente"

Secret 7:

  • The Risotto “punto di cottura” (= cooking point) 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

  • Taste it and taste it again to ensure you get it right through the last stages and up to the end, just just enough broth if the rice is not yet soft enough, but all liquid must be absorbed all the time

Secret 8:

  • The "mantecatura" is when you obtain the final creamy texture of your risotto, and is the last, masterful touch

  • 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.

  • Finish it off by adding a little parmisan at this point (but not if you are making a seafood or fish risotto!)

  • TIP: don't overdo it with the parmisan, 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 like 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 an important menu. You will make these mistakes eventually, and only by making them you'll learn how not to do it again.

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