The origins of risotto are not recorded. It is, however, a staple throughout northern Italy and is grown extensively in the Veneto, Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna. It is categorized in four groups according to length and form of the grain as well as the cooking time. This incorporates the smallest which cooks in 12 to 13 minutes up to semifino, fino and superfino which cooks in 16 to 20 minutes. Superfino is the considered the perfect rice for risotto. Surprisingly, in Italy rice is equated with wine in having vintage years, a concern that goes beyond the average taste. Many risotto dishes could be considered piatti poveri ( poor people's dishes) as risotto has been cooked with almost every conceivable addition, from frog's legs to sausage, from flowers and vegetables to the classic Milanese risotto with saffron.
How to cook Risotto
Types of Rice Used to Cook Risotto
In the world of rice, there are as many varieties as there are thumbprints on this earth. That may be a small exaggeration, but there are infinite varieties and only those short-grained rices specific to risotto should be used. The three main risotto types are:
Arborio - the most readily available rice, Arborio makes a light risotto and is especially good if you want the soupy texture.
Carnaroli - this has a very high starch content and it is starch that makes risotto creamy. It's center stays firm even when absorbing a lot of liquid.
Vialone Nano - these grains are the shortest and it is said to be the most absorptive of all the rices.
The Broth Used to Cook Risotto
Risotto is versatile. Through its long history in Italy as both peasant dish and rich man's feast, risotto has been cooked with ingredients such as frogs legs, marrow, and calves lungs. While we may eschew such ingredients today, risotto remains versatile, but before we even think of a grain of rice, we must think about the broth we will use in the risotto. The very soul of all Italian cooking is to use quality ingredients, and this is even more important in a risotto - so important that we will not use the word stock, but call it broth. This broth will infuse every grain of rice and you will want the best broth possible. As always, there is nothing like the broth made at home, but lacking that find the best prepared broth possible. Before you start to cook the risotto, bring the broth to a boil on the back burner of the stove. Once boiling, turn the flame to the lowest setting possible just to keep it warm. Using cool liquid would stop the risotto from cooking. You are being kind to the rice.
The Flavor base of risotto
In Italian a flavor base is called a soffritto. Chopped onion is the most commonly used flavor base for risotto. Cook the onions gently in either butter or oil, or a combination of both. Mixing the two will prevent the butter from burning while giving the sweetness of butter to the risotto. Never, never burn the onions. Burning the onions is equivalent to abusing the risotto, and in a kitchen court, risotto abuse would condemned the cook to a life without risotto.
- How to Cook Risotto: 1 - Toasting the Rice
Unlike boiled rice which is dumped into boiling liquid, risotto begins its journey to perfection by being lightly toasted in the hot oil and/or butter. This step, called the tostatura, seals the rice and maintains its chewy quality. The creaminess of risotto does not come from falling apart rice as we shall see in the next critical step. The toasting step takes only three to four minutes. An experienced Italian chef might test the grains by tossing them against the side of the pan to hear a ping, the confirmation that the grains are pebbl-hard with the starch sealed into the grain - to be released as the cooking contnues..
- How to Cook Risotto: 2 - Cooking the Liquid into the Risotto
Once the grains are toasted and opaque around the edges, liquid is added gradually. Work with ladlefuls of liquid. Never let the risotto dry out, but never pour all the liquid on it. This is to help with the stirring. You cannot properly stir rice that is swimming in water. And you never cover the pot. Cooking without covering the pot also means evaporation and evaporation gives a more concentrated flavor to risotto.
- How to Cook Risotto: 3 - Stirring, stirring, stirring. Why the fuss about stirring?
Stirring the risotto is abusing it slightly. But this is like the gentle spank a mother gives a mischievous child and it is critical. Stirring creates friction on the grains of rice and releases a little of its starch. This is the secret to the creaminess of risotto. We recommend a wooden spoon for stirring as it will help create that friction while a smooth spoon will glide through the grains. If you are a Venetian chef, you can simplify this by tossing the rice upward in a stream from the pot so each grain will bruise another slightly, a kind of free-for-all of grains that results in a stream of evenly flowing risotto. If you are not a Venetian chef, this method is best abandoned and stirring adopted.
Do not be frightened by the dictatorial command to stir, however. You do not need to glue yourself to the side of the pot. You will automatically want to stir when you add liquid. Give the rice a few extra swirls with each addition.
- How to Cook Risotto: 4 - Finishing the Risotto
Risotto release starch and becomes creamy, but it should still have a little bite to it. This is equivalent to cooking pasta al dente. As a final flourish, stir in a little butter and it will be very creamy. Adding butter is classic in Italy.
Now that you know how to cook risotto, you can try any one of these great risotto recipes. There are recipes using vegetables, some with meat, and even a few for dessert. Have fun, eat risotto with a hearty appetite, and don't forget to stir.