Those of you who watch food shows on TV know that risotto is considered a competition landmine — getting it right is almost impossible in the time usually allowed. And we’ve all heard stories about spending hours in the kitchen only to end up with a gluey mess in a bowl.
The introduction to Bon Appetit’s Best Risotto Recipe states … “Risotto is like a clingy baby. You can’t put it down, you can’t walk away from it, and you can’t ignore it. Its needs are simple, it just wants all of you. And if you give it all of your patient attention, it will turn into a puddle of love.”
That puddle of love is why we eat risotto, what the Spruce Eats blog describes as “a soft, creamy mound on a dinner plate.” So I approached this week’s column with three questions in mind. First — is risotto really the nightmare it’s reputed to be? Second — what’s the best technique to use? And third — can risotto made in an Instant Pot in 15 minutes really stand up to the traditionally prepared version?
Risotto is a cooking technique, not an ingredient — a traditional Italian rice dish made from a short-grained, starchy variety of rice that is high in amylopectin and low in amylose. The dish is prepared slowly, allowing the rice to absorb liquid, cook to a slightly al dente texture without getting mushy, all while creating a rich, velvety sauce without the use of additional thickeners.
All risotto starts with a short- to medium-grain form of rice high in the starch amylopectin; it is the ratio of amylose to amylopectin that determines the final texture of the dish. The most common variety used is arborio rice; other cooks swear by the Italian varieties carnaroli (which I found at Goods for Cooks) and vialone nano, which I didn’t. Other good choices include bomba, a Spanish rice primarily used to make paella, and un-rinsed Japanese sushi rice.
Once you’ve chosen your rice there are a number of other decisions to make. Traditionally you start by sauteing aromatics — onions and garlic — followed by adding the rice, deglazing the pot with white wine or vermouth, and then cooking the rice slowly in liquid while stirring to reach the correct texture and creaminess.
Do you toast your rice or not? What liquid should you use — water or vegetable, seafood or meat broths? Do you add your liquid all at once or in increments and is that liquid warm or cold? How often should the risotto be stirred?
Is it a first course, a meal in itself or an accompaniment to seafood, meat, vegetables or a salad? Do you serve your risotto straight up, add a topping or mix in other ingredients? This is where all the controversy comes in!
Over a week or so I selected three versions of risotto to help me answer my questions:
The first was a classic risotto from Bon Appetit. Made with toasted carnaroli rice, using warmed, salted water added in increments for the liquid and mixing in butter and parmesan cheese at the end. The recipe also includes four different toppings, two of which we tried this round. It was the creamiest version but did take well over an hour to prepare.
The second was a lemony shrimp risotto from Giada de Laurentis of the Food Network. This recipe used toasted arborio rice, added the liquid, in this case chicken broth, cold and all at once, and mixed in arugula and shrimp at the end of the cooking process for a full meal in itself (I also thew in some blanched asparagus pieces for a little crunch). This recipe was probably the least creamy of the three, but still had an acceptable texture and took about 30-40 minutes to prepare, including the prep time.
And finally I made an Instant Pot risotto. This one also used arborio rice, chicken broth and added all the liquid at one time. The rice wasn’t toasted and was cooked along with mushrooms, with spinach and peas mixed in at the end. Texturally it was intermediate to the other two recipes, the rice was cooked properly even though I couldn’t test it as it cooked, and from start to finish it took about 20 minutes from prep time to table top.
So here are some things I learned:
- All the recipes made a tasty version of risotto. The traditional method was probably the best texturally but all versions were acceptable. Which method you choose might be a matter of how much time you have in the kitchen and the recipe you choose.
- Toasting the rice, sauteing the aromatics and using broth all add flavor to the risotto. Adding butter, cheese and/or cream to the finished dish will add creaminess but isn’t required for a good risotto.
- A large, wide pan gives the best results, allowing the rice to spread out and cook more evenly.
- Timing is key. When you add liquid, make sure that you wait until the risotto has almost completely absorbed the previous round and the rice is nearly dry. Rushing the process can result in rice that is mushy on the outside and crunchy on the inside.
- Don’t over-stir, but don’t under-stir either. Over-stirring can cause gluey rice but under stirring will allow the rice grains to stick to each other and to the bottom of the pan. Using a kitchen tool with a flat tip will give the most effective stir and stirring immediately after adding liquids helps keep starches from sticking to the pan
- Don’t overcook the rice. Stop when you get to the al dente stage. The rice will continue to cook after you remove it from the heat and overcooking will create a mushy mess, especially with arborio rice, which has almost no amylose content and is soft to start with.
- For best results serve immediately in warmed plates or bowls. As the starches cool, they get thicker and more moisture is absorbed, changing the texture of your dish. If needed, add a little more liquid to restore the dish to the desired consistency.
Leftover risotto can be refrigerated in an airtight container for a couple of days; it doesn’t freeze well. Reheat on the stove top with warmed stock or water, using about 1/4 cup liquid to 1 cup of risotto. In the microwave add a splash of wine or broth to the bowl, cook for about 3 minutes, stir and repeat as necessary. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, add some egg, roll in bread crumbs and fry up some arancini risotto balls.
And the answers to MY questions? No, it depends and yes! Now it’s time to come up with some of your own.
Bon Appetit’s Best Risotto
Source: Carla Lalli Music, Bon Appetit, March 29, 2019.
1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 large white onion, finely chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 cups carnaroli or Japanese sushi rice
1 cup dry white wine
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 3/4 cups finely grated parmesan, divided
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Combine 1 tablespoon salt and 10 cups water in a medium stockpot. Bring to a very bare simmer over medium heat.
2. Meanwhile, heat oil in a 6-quart Dutch oven over medium. Cook onion and a pinch of salt, stirring frequently, until onion is translucent and starting to soften, 6-8 minutes. Add 1/2 cup water and cook, stirring often, until water evaporates and onion is sizzling in oil and completely tender, about 5 minutes. (Adding the water allows the onion to cook gently and thoroughly without taking on any color.) Taste onion; if it’s still firm at all, add another splash of water and continue cooking until meltingly soft.
3. Add rice and stir well to coat with oil. Cook, stirring constantly, until grains of rice are translucent around the edges and they make a glassy clattering sound when they hit the sides and bottom of pot, about 5 minutes. Coating the grains with oil before adding any liquid helps the rice cook evenly so that the outside does not become mushy before the center is tender. Add wine and another pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until wine is completely evaporated, about 2 minutes.
4. Reduce heat to medium, then add hot salted water to rice in 3/4-cup increments, stirring constantly and allowing liquid to absorb fully before adding more, until rice is al dente and surrounded by fluid, not-too-thick creamy suspension, 25-30 minutes. It should take 2-3 minutes for each addition to be absorbed; if things are moving faster than this, reduce heat to medium-low. Gradual absorption and constant agitation are key to encouraging the starches to release from the risotto, creating its trademark creamy consistency. You may not need all of the hot water, but err on the side of soup rather than sludge. The finished texture should be more of a liquid than a solid. Start checking the rice after about 15 minutes; the grains should be tender but not mushy, with a slightly firm center that doesn’t leave a chalky or bitty residue between your teeth after tasting. Do not overcook.
5. Remove pot from heat, add butter, and stir until melted. Gradually add 1 1/4 cups parmesan, stirring until cheese is melted and liquid surrounding risotto is creamy but very fluid. Stir in more hot salted water if needed to achieve the right consistency. Taste and season with salt.
6. Divide risotto among warm bowls. Top each with a grind of pepper. Serve with remaining 1/2 cup parmesan alongside for passing.
Buttered Sugar Snap Peas with Mint
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 scallions, white and light green parts, finely chopped
1 pound sugar snap peas, trimmed and cut in half lengthwise
1/2 cup sliced mint leaves
1. Heat unsalted butter in a large skillet over medium until foaming, about 1 minute.
2. Add scallions, season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until scallions are bright green and aromatic, 1-2 minutes.
3. Add sugar snap peas, season again, and cook, tossing occasionally, until crisp-tender, 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 cup sliced mint leaves.
4. Spoon peas and any pan juices onto BA’s Best Risotto.
Burst Cherry Tomato Sauce
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, crushed
2 pints cherry tomatoes
1. Heat butter and extra-virgin olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until butter is foaming.
2. Add garlic cloves, season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is aromatic and starting to brown, 1-2 minutes.
3. Add 2 pints cherry tomatoes and increase heat to medium-high. Cook, tossing frequently and pressing down on tomatoes with a wooden spoon to encourage skins to split, about 5 minutes.
4. Add 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes and toss to combine. Taste and season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, if needed.
5. Spoon tomatoes and pan sauce onto BA’s Best Risotto. Drizzle with oil.
Lemony Shrimp and Risotto
Source: Giada de Laurentis, Food Network
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound extra-large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 small fennel bulb, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 small onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 large clove garlic, smashed, peeled, chopped
1 cup arborio rice (about 6 1/2 ounces)
1/4 cup dry white wine
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth, plus extra as needed
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from 1 large lemon)
Zest of 1 large lemon
3 cups arugula
1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add the shrimp and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper. Cook until the shrimp are just opaque in the center, about 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Transfer the shrimp and juices to a bowl to cool.
2. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons oil to the pan. Add the fennel and onions. Cook until tender, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until aromatic, 30 seconds. Add the rice. Stir until well coated and translucent in spots, about 2 minutes. Add the wine. Cook until the wine is absorbed, stirring often, about 2 minutes. Add the broth, lemon juice, zest, the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Increase the heat and bring to a boil, stirring often. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer until the rice is just tender but still has some bite and the risotto is creamy, stirring often, 13-14 minutes.
3. Mix in the arugula. Stir until the arugula wilts, about 30 seconds. Add the shrimp. Mix in more broth if needed, 1/4 cup at a time, until the risotto is creamy.
4. Spoon the risotto into 4 shallow soup bowls.
Instant Pot Mushroom Risotto
Source: Damn Delicious, March 21, 2018
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, diced
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup arborio rice
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
2 cups baby spinach
3/4 cup frozen peas, thawed
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan
1. Set a 6-quart Instant Pot to the high saute setting. Melt 2 tablespoons butter; add garlic and onion, and cook, stirring often, until onions have become translucent, 3-4 minutes.
2. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 3-4 minutes; season with salt and pepper, to taste.
3. Stir in chicken broth, rice and thyme. Select manual setting; adjust pressure to high, and set time for 6 minutes. When finished cooking, quick-release pressure according to manufacturer’s directions.
4. Stir in spinach and remaining 2 tablespoons butter until the spinach has wilted, about 2 minutes. Stir in peas and parmesan until heated through, about 30 seconds to 1 minute.
5. Serve immediately.