Risotto Rules

How do you magically force 1 quart of liquid into 1 cup of rice without overflowing? Make risotto, of course! I have made many a risotto in recent years (here’s one), and I still find it one of the most therapeutic dishes to make. Not only is it warm and delicious in your tummy, it is stress-relieving in the ingredient-chopping, tantalizing in its aromas, and positively mesmerizing to stir together. Do I exaggerate? No. Follow my risotto rules and you, too, can make some magic.

Rule #1: Always use arborio rice

Sometimes it comes in a box, sometimes in a bag (I’ve yet to see it in bulk in a Virginia grocery store). However it’s packaged, arborio rice is a short-grain rice with a particular affinity for absorbing liquid and tripling – even quadrupling – its mass. Trust me, I’ve tried to make risotto with the rice that I use in my rice cooker for Korean meals; the results were unsatisfactory and the cooking time was extended by about half. Arborio is the answer.

Rule #2: Stand comfortably

Risotto is an attention-hog. It takes a lot of care and visual monitoring to make a good dish. When I make it, I make sure to get set up for comfortable standing. Here I’ve moved my cork mat (usually in front of the sink) to the stove, and I even stand in my slippers for extra comfort (plus it’s zero degrees with windchill tonight, so it’s pretty flippin’ cold). Because this is not really a dish that I can make while I clean up the kitchen, I also try to create a comfortable ambiance by blasting some classical music (currently I’m loving the “Symphonic” music channel provided by Directv); exciting opera is also a good choice.

Rule #3: Always add wine. Always.

So here’s how you make a really basic risotto. Dice up an onion and a couple cloves of garlic. Sautee in a bit of olive oil over medium heat. Be sure to salt and pepper as you go. When they start to soften and smell yummy, add 1 cup of arborio rice and turn up the heat slightly. Let the rice toast briefly then add 1 cup of wine (usually white). The pan will sizzle and suddenly smell ah-mazing. But we’re not just interested in the smell here. The wine scents the rice beautifully and adds a depth of flavor that is absolutely noticeable (trust me, you’ll notice it when you don’t do it). All of the alcohol will burn off so don’t worry about that.

Rule #4: Always use hot stock, preferrably homemade

So after you’ve added the wine and it’s virtually evaporated, it’s time to start adding the stock (you could use chicken, vegetable, beef, even seafood stocks, depending on the other ingredients you are using). It’s important to use hot stock. This means that before you even chop up your veggies and start cooking, you’ll want to be heating up your stock in a separate saucepan. I’m not sure the science behind it, but based on experience, the liquid seems to be absorbed faster by the rice if it’s hot because it prevents the temperature of the risotto from dropping (this is especially important if you’re using homemade stock from your freezer). So at this point you add the stock one or two ladlefuls at a time, stirring regularly and letting it become almost entirely absorbed before adding the next. Continue to add stock and stir until you have used about 1 quart of stock. If you do it right, this could take 25-30 minutes (so see rule #2).

Rule #5: Exercise patience

Once all the liquid has been absorbed, it’s time to add the cheese (all my favorite risotto recipes include at least a little bit of cheese; freshly grated parmesan is by far my favorite). Turn off the heat and add a few good handfuls of cheese and a couple tablespoons of butter. Let everything melt together and get all ooey gooey. Certainly taste as you go, but before you can serve it, you’ve got to exercise just a tiny bit more patience by covering it with a lid and letting it sit for 2-3 minutes to help everything melt together.

(What do you think of my makeshift lid that obviously doesn’t fit this pan? Probably goes without saying that I am grateful for wedding registries and am tickled pink at the anticipation and prospect of a more complete cookware collection…)

And there you go. Five rules to help you make a perfect risotto every time. Once you’ve mastered this basic recipe, you can experiment by adding in other vegetables (cubes of roasted butternut or acorn squash, for example), changing up your cheeses, adding meat (shrimp, chicken, leftover turkey if you’ve still got any) – the possibilities are almost as endless as soup.

Today I made a three cheese risotto (using parmesan, pecorino-romano, and goat cheese) and topped it off with a couple slices of proscuitto.

Isn’t it amazing what one cup of rice can make? By the way,  this would easily feed 4 people (keep in mind that risotto is quite rich and filling, so no need to go overboard, especially if you’re making it as a side dish).

I don’t think that my rules are any big secret; indeed, they’re the basic foundations of what makes a risotto a risotto. But they are the five most important things I think you can do to guarantee a lovely dish. I encourage you to try them and see what creative risottos you can come up with. Its stress-relieving powers are not yet scientifically proven, but I think you’ll find making risotto an enjoyable experience. As Alex says, risotto rules!

What are your favorite risotto flavors that you have made, tasted, or read about? New to risotto? Give it a try and let us know what you think!

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8 thoughts on “Risotto Rules

  1. Deena says:

    I saw some risotto in the bulk bins when I was stocking up on wheat pastry flour, and I’ve decided to buy some and give this a try! It’s something I’ve always wanted to make but have been intimidated by. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Deena says:

    I’m pretty excited and trying to contain myself! Whenever you have some time you’ll have to give me some ideas for additions.

  3. […] pointed out, yes, I suppose I have been on a goat cheese kick lately (evidence here and here and here). But once you buy some, you’re always looking for ways to use it. And it’s such a […]

  4. […] Chili Jam and Arancini di Riso Posted on April 12, 2011 by Jessalyn| 2 Comments I made risotto a couple nights ago because it was chilly and rainy (oh wait, it’s still raining…April […]

  5. […] Leave a comment Do you know what the beautiful thing about risotto is? You can make it plain (like so) or you can add whatever ingredients you want, whatever leftovers you are trying to rid your fridge […]

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