Updated: Jun 4
Young peas are coming into season and they are the ideal ingredients for making a spring time risotto. There are a few Nonna approved recommendations that I have found very helpful over the years when making a risotto. But the most important may be “the pause”, adding the stock by ladling in one cup at a time and allowing the mixture to come to a medium bubble stirring occasionally to keep the rice from sticking as it absorbs the liquid. The portioned adding of the liquid is important to achieve that creamy, silky consistency that is a hallmark of a well-made risotto. Adding the liquid too quickly will ruin a risotto’s texture.
The rest of the recommendations can be forgiving but the impatience of the cook will undo the making of a risotto. Allowing enough time perfects the dish. Move as slowly and deliberately as possible following the required steps and cooking times involved. Having the right mind-set when preparing food with an awareness of the unique details of the dish, the history and food memories it brings to the table is important in Italian cooking.
Most generational recipes have this emotional attachment to cooking both in the choice of ingredients and methodology of preparation. And if your Italian grandmother is from Northern Italy, in particular Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont, there are few dishes as popular or as versatile as risotto where they eat as much rice as pasta. Once mastered the ritual of making a risotto is easy.
7 Points to Consider when Making an Authentic Italian risotto
the right choice of the pan
the right choice of the rice
the right choice of the fat
the right choice of the “toast”
the right choice of the wine
the right temperature of the liquid (stock)
the right spoon and amount of stirring
As in any dish the method is as important as the ingredients so attention needs to be given to all of the above to realize the elegant simplicity of a well-made risotto.
Our Nonna used a heavy bottomed, straight sided skillet designed for long and even heat retention 10-12 inches in diameter. The depth and wide surface area of the pan are important so that the liquid is evaporating at about the same rate that the rice is cooking, leaving behind a concentration of starch that yields a creamier risotto. A rondeau-style pan, a wide, shallow pan similar to a Dutch oven but not as deep with a heavy base will conduct and retain heat well. Dutch-oven style pans such as Le Creuset are often mentioned but any well made multiple-ply clad pan will do. An age old tradition of hammered copper pans with a wide base and rounded bottom are known for their heat conductivity and would be an investment piece in your kitchen as would be the Ruffoni Risotto Pan shown below.
However you don’t need to invest in an expensive pan to make a good a risotto. Risotto can be successfully made in any high-sided, heavy bottomed skillet that provides even heat. What about a non-stick skillet? I don’t think our Nonna ever had a nonstick pan and tradition would say no because you want to cook off (evaporate) the liquid with each addition until the rice is about to stick to the bottom of your pan.
Should you cover the risotto as it cooks? If your pan has a companion lid you will not need it to make risotto. Risotto cooks without a cover, so instead of steaming, it simmers until the liquid fully absorbs and the rice is al dente.
A short to medium-grain rice that has a high starch (amylopectin) content is the right rice for risotto. In the US Arborio rice is the most widely used for all risotto recipes because you can find it almost everywhere. In Italy the historic rice for making risotto is Carnaroli for its ideal consistency, creaminess and aroma. It absorbs more broth (and more flavor) while keeping its structure without falling apart which is important as risotto requires a certain amount of stirring to release the starch content. Other varieties include Vialone Nano, Baldo, Riso Roma and regional varieties such as Sant’ Andrea from the Abbey of Sant’ Andrea Vercelli in Piedmonte, where it is used for the preparation of the typical dish of the area, panissa, a risotto prepared with sautéed lard and salami in fat and cooked in bean broth.
These types of rice are well-balanced and with good absorption and low loss of starch, qualities necessary to make a good risotto. Rice used to make risotto has a “pearl”, la perla, in the center of the grain that reveals itself as the rice is “toasted” in the hot oil/butter. This opaque center stands out against the translucent grain. Our Nonna used to say that when the rice opens its eye it will soon be time to add the liquid.
The only rice to really avoid when making a risotto is long-grain rice, like basmati or jasmine, as they do not have enough starch content to achieve the standard of creaminess found in a well-made risotto. Also never rinse the rice before cooking. The rice’s starch layer adds to the creaminess of the risotto so washing is not recommended.
The right choice of fat for making a risotto is extra virgin olive oil or butter or a combination of both. Oil is needed to allow the onion to brown and rice to “toast”. The toasting of the rice or “tostatura,” is extremely important and a step you should never skip. Toasting seals the grain and creates a selective barrier that allows the grain to slowly absorb moisture without becoming soggy and also prevents it from breaking as it cooks. Brilliant!
Toasting also reveals “the pearl” in the rice grain and is a marker that allows you to move to begin adding your liquid. Allowing the onion to brown and rice to “toast” should not take too long – not more than a minute.
Although some would not, adding wine at this stage adds another layer of flavor and balances the richness of the risotto. Do not use any wine that you would not drink, so now would be a good time to put yourself a glass and get ready for the final stages of preparing the dish. White is the wine of choice and include a Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay although there is a regional version from Piedmonte made with Barolo, a local red wine made from the nebbiolo grape, that uses substantial ingredients (meat, mushrooms, beans) to create a robust risotto that is a local speciality.
A good quality stock generally chicken, vegetable or seafood is slowly added into the mixture while the risotto cooks at a medium simmer, pausing until each portion of the liquid has been absorbed before adding more and continuing the process as the recipe directs.To make ladling easier have your pot of broth next to your risotto pot on the stove. Make sure your broth is hot. Adding cold broth to hot rice results in a hard, uncooked kernel in the center of the grain.
At this point the stirring begins and here is where the cook's impatience has been the undoing of many a risotto. You must add the stock by ladling in one cup and allowing the mixture to come to a medium bubble stirring occasionally to keep the rice from sticking as it absorbs the liquid. Pause then once the rice has absorbed most of the liquid, add a half-cup more of the stock and keep stirring gently, pausing between each addition as the mixture comes to a medium bubble and the stock is absorbed. Aim to have the stock mostly absorbed by this method over the course of about 15 minutes
The portioned adding of the liquid is important to achieve the creamy, silky consistency that is a hallmark of a well-made risotto. Adding the liquid too quickly and over stirring will ruin a risotto’s texture. The key to stirring a risotto is the right amount of agitation because risotto's creaminess comes from the starch generated when the grains of rice rub against each other. Proper stirring releases the starch that creates a creamy sauce. There is a myth about stirring. It is not necessary to stir the risotto constantly but do not abandon it either. Over stirring will add air into the risotto, cooling it down and making it mushy and gluey. But if you don't stir enough, the rice will stick to the bottom and burn. Risotto shouldn't take more than 20-30 minutes to cook to reach that ideal al dente texture, creamy and soft, just firm enough in the center.
A metal spoon can react with certain ingredients in a recipe and change the taste or texture of the dish. Italians prefer a wooden spoon called a girariso, a “rice rotator,” with a large hole in the center. The design of the spoon allows the rice to freely flow through the hole back and forth as it stirs in the opposite direction increasing the effectiveness of stirring. A wooden spoon is also a better choice because it does not react with any ingredients.
Now that the risotto is cooked and ready it is time to turn off the heat and for the last step of risotto preparation, the mantecatura, adding butter and cheese (typically parmigiano) to your rice. In Italian mantecare means whipping to reach creamy stage resulting all’onda, the wave. The texture of a well-made risotto as you tip it from the pan in an ocean like wave onto a heated flat plate or warm shallow bowl. Then take a moment to pause and enjoy one of Italy’s most iconic dishes.