Art of Risotto
I find risotto the perfect example of comfort food, something that is the usual pick to cook when I have guests at home or when I feel warming up my belly on a cold winter evening. Its oozy texture and rich flavour can deliver a mouth-watering feeling that is simply unbeatable. At the same time, it has an elegant appearance and can be prepared from a never-ending list of recipes, combining all possible food products and ingredients.
Risotto is a rice dish but differs substantially from other rice dishes, mainly because of its semi-fluid and creamy consistency. A rice dish can be called risotto only if the cooked mixture, when served on a flat plate, can flow like sequential wave currents. The Italians have even a specific term (all’onda) that describes exactly this effect. The creamy texture has also to be consistent all over the mixture and not to have excess liquid released around the perimeter of the plate after serving.
So, obtaining a saucy consistency is a prerequisite for a proper risotto and nobody denies this fact. However, the applied techniques to build the desired creaminess can create some misconceptions, which are mostly triggered by cooks/chefs in the media who often exaggerate by emphasizing the importance of adding butter and parmesan at the end of cooking. Adding and incorporating the aforementioned ingredients into the mixture, a process known as mantecatura, is indeed the typical and traditional way to finish a risotto, but many times the added amounts are enormous, so that not only mask the flavour of the main ingredients but also increase substantially the caloric load of the dish.
But what happens if you do not have butter and parmesan at home or you would like to cook a vegan risotto? Simply speaking, you can make a creamy risotto even by skipping completely that part. The factors that determine success are just two, namely the proper type of rice, and a rich and tasty broth. Cooking those two together by applying some simple techniques is all you need for getting a great risotto.
Not all rice types are adequate for risotto, because not all have the same starch content. Starch release into the medium during cooking is the crucial factor that will determine whether your risotto will come out creamy or not. Therefore, you need a rice that has lots of it, particularly the type of branched starch molecules known as amylopectin. But you do not only need enough starch but also rice grains that are durable enough to remain intact and not to break apart during cooking. You find those properties usually in rice grains that have a short-to-medium size and a rounded shape.
Theoretically, any rice designated as ‘risotto rice’ can be used for risotto, however, it is highly recommended to obtain a proper variety of Italian rice. The most common varieties are Carnaroli (known as the ‘king’ of risotto rice that is mostly used by chefs), Arborio (maybe the most common to find), and Vialone Nano.
The broth is the second fundamental ingredient for a good risotto because it is going to be the central flavour carrier in the recipe. If the broth is rich and tasty, then the risotto made only with that and nothing else will be a success. Such a risotto, known as white risotto (risotto bianco), is basically the base for all others. The broth can be either of vegetable or animal origin. Vegetable broths are more versatile, much easier to make, and require less time. You can use any kind of bulb vegetables that are always available in any kitchen, anything from onions, carrots, celery, fennel, etc., but you can get also creative and incorporate any taste and aroma you like.
Typically, in most recipes, the vegetables are boiled in water and the resulted liquid is used to cook the rice. However, by doing a couple of simple adjustments, its character can get much stronger and the flavour profile of the dish can be substantially elevated.
Before adding the water, I normally sauté the veggies in a bit of olive oil to introduce new flavours by browning them slightly. Then, I add water and let them boil until they get soft. In the end, I blend everything and use the whole mixture in the recipe. This way, the whole vegetable substance plus taste will be infused into the dish. Additionally, their fibrous component will further contribute to the thickening of the risotto.
Most people connect risotto with the characteristic technique that is used to cook it, namely the gradual addition of the broth into the pot and the constant stirring. Small batches of broth are added, the mixture is frequently stirred, and the next batch comes in only when previous has been absorbed by the rice. The rationale behind this technique is that it allows the grains to be always in close contact and by stirring them often you create friction. Thus, more starch is rubbed off, and the risotto ends up creamier. Additionally, constant mixing helps the rice grains to cook evenly. However, I have seen Italian chefs cooking great risotti by using at once the whole broth, letting the rice cook without stirring, and doing only the mantecatura step at the end. This suggests that the starch that thickens the risotto comes only from the surface of the grain and not from its interior. This is the reason why the rice should by no means washed under water before cooking.
Personally, I always do the classic way because I really like the meditative process of adding and stirring, adding and stirring...
This will take in total between 15-20 min, the time that rice needs to fully cook, keeping still though a bit of an al-dente texture.
What however is important and should not be skipped is to toast the rice in olive oil or butter at the beginning of cooking and before adding the broth. This takes place for a few minutes until the rice grains are shiny and emit heat when we place our palm on top of them. Toasting coats the rice grains with a film of fat and controls starch release, allowing grains to remain intact during cooking and preventing them from becoming soggy.
Risotto with green asparagus (Spring Risotto)
any vegetables (onions, carrots, celery, fennel etc.)
bottom of asparagus stalks
extra-virgin olive oil
bay leaf (optional)
* do not add too much salt and pepper in this stage because the whole broth will be used to cook the rice and the seasonings will concentrate in the final dish
- Chop the vegetables in large pieces and sauté them in a large pot with a couple of tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil for a few minutes until they start browning.
- Add the water and deglaze, add salt and pepper, bring to boil, cover the pot, and let the mixture boil gently for 30 min.
- Remove from fire, remove the asparagus bottoms and the bay leaf, and blend the rest with a food blender. Use the blended mix to cook the rice.
Risotto (80g rice per portion)
green asparagus stalks
extra-virgin olive oil
white wine (optional)
- Clean the asparagus by bending each stalk until they break. Use the fibrous bottoms in broth preparation and sauté the upper parts in extra-virgin olive oil for a few minutes until tender. Keep them aside to use them later in the risotto.
- Cut the onion in as thin pieces as possible and sauté them in medium heat for a few minutes until translucent but not browned.
- Add the rice and toast it for another 2-3 minutes until it gets shiny and emits heat after placing the palm over it. Be careful not to burn the onion/rice mixture.
- Deglaze with a small glass of white wine and stir with a wooded spatula until evaporates.
(If you do not have wine, proceed directly by adding the broth).
- Add a small batch of the broth that you keep hot and keep stirring regularly until the liquid is well absorbed by the rice. Keep adding the hot broth in batches until rice cooked but still a bit al dente. Depending on the rice, it will take between 15-20 min (usually to me it takes 17 min).
- Sometime during cooking add the asparagus stalks cut in pieces of your own preference.
- Turn off the fire, add some extra olive oil, mix well and let it stand for a couple of minutes.
- Serve, add a few whole asparagus spears to decorate the dish and if you feel add also some parmesan shavings.