Risotto: Lessons Learned

This week in cooking class, one of the recipes we made was risotto. I was immediately excited about this one, because I love risotto, and I have many family members who do as well. Risotto is made with special rice- usually Arborio or Carnaroli rice from Italy, which have a high starch content and help to create that creamy delicious texture that is unique to this preparation. It is important to note, that this is not a recipe which you can start, and then go off and catch up on missed episodes of Top Chef. Once you start the risotto, you need to be ready to stand there and babysit it for at least 20-30 minutes. That being said, the end result is worth all the work, and risotto is also very versatile. You can make it to include any number of seasonal ingredients, or just make a plainer version. It can be a meal unto itself, a side dish, or starter.

As with all grains, risotto has a proper ratio of liquid to grain, although things get a bit fuzzier with this particular preparation. Generally speaking, you will be using 6 parts liquid to 1 part rice. The amount of liquid needed can be affected by different factors including how old/ dry the rice is, cooking temperature, etc. It is best to use a wide and somewhat shallow pan when making Risotto. This gives the liquid more chance to evaporate, plus it makes it easier for you to be stirring and observing while it is cooking. The pan we used in class was a wide pan (I think about 10 inches) with a long handle and straight 4inch (this is a guess) sides.

For basic risotto, you will need:

– 6 cups (or more) simmering liquid- chicken stock (or you could use water, but it would lend less flavor)

– 1 cup Arborio or Carnaroli rice

– 1 c. dry white wine

– 1/2 minced onion

– 1/2 – 1 clove sliced or minced garlic

-butter or olive oil

– grated parmesan cheese

The first step is to get everything ready. You’ll want to get your stock (or you could use water) simmering in a separate pot on the back burner of your stove. You’ll be adding hot stock to the rice throughout the cooking time, and it’s best to have a little more than you think you will need, rather than having too little and scrambling to heat up liquid while watching your risotto.

In your Risotto pan, heat up your butter (1 tablespoon or so would be plenty), and sweat your onions over medium heat with a little salt until they are translucent, but not browned.

At this point in class we were taught to add the white wine to the onions, and let it cook until “Au Sec” (meaning approaching complete dryness). What is the first clue this is happening? You will hear the difference as your onions sizzle a bit when nearly all the liquid has evaporated from the pan. Remember, you are not looking for your onions to brown, you just want to cook until the wine has evaporated.

Next, you will add your arborio rice, to toast it with the onions and warm the rice. Stir the rice until it is warmed and coated with the buttery, wine-infused onions, and then add your first ladle full of simmering stock to the rice.

The adding of stock to the rice, and at what interval, is the trickiest part of making risotto. The goal is to keep the rice cooking in enough liquid so that it moves around, and when you wiggle the pan back and forth the rice makes a sort of wave motion. The rice should not be floating in so much liquid that it resembles a soup. It should also be at a high enough temperature to maintain a constant simmer- bubbling frequently and evenly. On my gas stove this was a medium to medium-high heat.

After you add your stock, your goal is to stir frequently, constantly assessing the liquid level in your pan. When enough liquid has evaporated that the rice is starting to appear more viscous and is less able to move freely in the pan, simply add more stock, a ladleful at a time. Don’t let it get all the way dry, before you add more stock. On the other hand, if you feel your little grains of rice are looking like deep sea swimmers rather than lazy river floaters; you can still recover. Just let some of the liquid evaporate off, and continue your frequent stirring and watching.

After you have added about 2 cups of stock to the rice, you can start tasting your rice periodically to check doneness. You are looking for a just slightly “al-dente” texture. Keep adding stock as necessary to maintain the correct liquid-to-rice balance in the pan, and tasting the rice periodically. When you are satisfied with it’s doneness, the rice will have released it’s starches, and should have a creamy consistency. If it is too dry, add a little more stock. If it is cooked, but a little too wet, let a little of that liquid cook off. The rice will thicken slightly once off the heat, so you don’t want to stop cooking with it absolutely dry. Once you feel your rice is ready, you can think about adding your garlic and a nice helping of parmesan cheese. Stir, remove from heat, and let it rest for a minute. Don’t forget to taste for salt! You can finish it with a little more butter, or a drizzle of olive oil. Eat your risotto right away. This is not a dish that re-heats well, so enjoy it in the moment.

For my risotto at home, I decided to use the technique we learned in class and add some Kale and aged sheep’s milk cheese. I used Sally Schneider’s recipe for Risotto with Bitter or Peppery Greens and Aged Sheep’s Milk Cheese, from her book A New Way to Cook, as a jumping off point.

In this recipe, she adds a bunch of sliced dark greens (I used Kale, but you could use Chard, Spinach, Arugula, etc.) after you have added approximately 2 cups of broth to the cooking rice. At this point you cover the rice and greens with another cup of simmering broth, and cover it (something you normally wouldn’t do with risotto), to let the greens steam on top of the rice for a few minutes. Then you uncover the risotto, stir the greens into the rice, and continue cooking until the risotto is done. I topped the risotto with with Santa Teresa sheep’s milk cheese.

*I served the risotto with Pan-Seared Salmon with Buttery Herbs from seriouseats.com. I followed the recipe pretty closely (except I didn’t have basil, so that was omitted). It was awesome, and this picture doesn’t do it justice. I will definitely be using this technique again.*

We ate all of the risotto, however, we both realized I should have tasted for salt one last time before serving. I remembered my instructor saying we should add parmesan first, and then taste for salt in dishes because parmesan adds so much of it’s own saltiness. I did this, and then forgot to taste one last time. Opps! My teachers would be disappointed. Always taste for salt.

The kids were also not too keen on trying the kale-laden risotto. My son asked, “What’s this green stuff?”

“It’s Kale,” said his Dad. “If it’s a green leafy vegetable, and it’s in our food, there’s a pretty good chance it’s Kale. Your Mom loves that stuff.”

Touché.

This lesson in Risotto also had me consulting my cookbook collection to see what variations in preparation I could find. Here are some of the highlights I found:

  • Many of my cookbooks suggest adding the rice to the sweated onions, then adding the wine, and letting the wine cook off, before adding the stock. This reversal in order seems more common in most of the recipes I found, but not all. I will have to try making it both ways to see if there is a notable difference.
  • In her famous cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the ever-wise Julia Child clarifies  the heat at which risotto should be cooked by saying, “Regulate your heat so the liquid is entirely absorbed in 18 to 20 minutes. If the liquid is absorbed too quickly, the rice will not be tender. If it is absorbed too slowly, the rice becomes gummy, the grains disintegrate, and the flavor of the rice is impaired.” (p.533)
  • In Aliza Green’s book, Starting WIth Ingredients, she suggest two versions, one of which recommends stirring a handful of spring greens (such as spinach, watercress, or arugula) into basic risotto just before serving, and topping with parmesan and fresh mozzarella (p.813)
  •  In his cookbook, Cook with Jamie, Jamie Oliver gives eight different variations on risotto including an Apple and Walnut Risotto with Gorgonzola and a Leftover Stew Risotto. Many of these recipes, plus others are available on his site www.jamieoliver.com. He also outlines a method by which you part-cook the risotto, and then quickly cool it and store it. He explains that restaurants do this in bulk, and then finish cooking the risotto when ordered. In this way, you could more easily cook and serve risotto for a dinner party, without having to stand at the stove as long.
  • Lidia Bastianich (the queen of Italian cooking), has a very good step-by-step explanation and recipe for cooking risotto in her book Lidia’s Family Table. She also reccomends improvising by adding flavorful sauces you make beforehand, such as Ragu alla Bolognese, Marinara with Basil, or Mushroom Ragu. One or two cups of sauce are warmed to a simmer and added after the risotto has already absorbed a couple cups of the simmering stock.

My Collection

I hope I have given you some helpful tips when it comes to making risotto, and that you will try it out yourself. Try it more than once if you can. That is my plan. It seems more and more to me, that learning to cook is about practicing over and over and gradually learning to trust your intuition.

I would be so excited to hear if anyone tries this, or has tried making risotto before! What worked for you?

Happy Cooking,

Melissa

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One thought on “Risotto: Lessons Learned

  1. Hi Melissa,
    I found my edible rosebuds at an asian food store. I believe they are for making rosebud tea.
    Hopefully you can find some!
    Thanks for stopping by my blog and happy weekend!

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