Risotto, abridged

Mixed mushroom risotto

I'll never forget my first risotto. Unfortunately. It was a first in more than one way — I'd never cooked a risotto before, but I'd also never eaten one. It showed, too — it was two years before I was ready to cook it again, and before Lucy was ready to eat it.

My problem was thinking of risotto as just another recipe. There are surely plenty of great recipes infinitely more reliable that the lemon I tried, but to make great risotto all you need is to get your head around three things: good rice, good stock, and good technique. With the basics down, you can easily improvise with whatever additions you like. The idea of a risotto recipe will become as ridiculous as a recipe for making a sandwich.

Good rice
Almost everyone says to use arborio. While I hate to get sanctimonious about these sorts of things, almost everyone is wrong. Objectively wrong. Especially autumn from the carbonara comments. Seriously though, arborio is a fine choice. You want a thick, starchy variety of rice and from that category you won't have any trouble finding arborio. Most risottos are made with it, and if you have good technique you'll make a good risotto.

But carnaroli is better. Let me put it another way: in the bizarro world where food eats people, in Bizarro Pirates of the Caribbean arborio fills Orlando Bloom's shoes while Captain Jack Sparrow is played by carnaroli. Arborio is inoffensive with mass appeal, but for totally badass risotto that everyone is going to remember, carnaroli is the rice you're after. The texture is better and it's much more forgiving and consistent. It's harder to find, but worth the search — try specialty shops and Italian delis, or order it online.

On the topic of rice, vialone nano is another well-regarded variety that I've never actually tried. I've heard it's best for seafood risotto, but if you've got more information leave a comment.

Good stock
If rice is the texture base, then stock is the flavour base. There are two things to consider with your choice of stock: does it taste good, and is it appropriate?

The taste part is easy: Homemade stock is better than bought, and if buying stock get a salt-free or salt-reduced version. The salt thing has nothing to do with snobbery or health, by the way. By simmering the stock until absorbed you will concentrate its saltiness and your risotto will be unbearably salty before even adding the cheese.

Appropriateness. A good rule is to match the stock with the additions/main course eaten with the risotto. For example, chicken and asparagus risotto? Chicken stock. Braised oxtail risotto? Beef or veal stock. Of course this isn't always possible — how likely are you to make rabbit stock for a rabbit risotto? In these cases a white chicken, veal, or vegetable stock are adaptable. Avoid using seafood stock in a non-seafood risotto unless you have some master plan for how it's going to not taste odd. These are guidelines rather than rules — try mixing it up a bit. In the mushroom risotto above I used duck stock because it goes well with mushrooms, and added the liquid that the dried porcinis soaked in for extra mushroominess.

Technique tips and a few recipes are after the jump.

Good technique
Bad technique will ruin your risotto, no matter how good the ingredients are. You'll find your own rhythm, but here are some tips I've found useful:

  • Toast the grains of rice when you add them, before adding the stock. Toast enough that the outside starts to go translucent exposing the white core in the middle, but not enough to brown them.
  • You don't have to stir constantly. Give the thing a vigorous stir fairly regularly, but you can step away from the stovetop.
  • Use 3-4 times the volume of stock per volume of uncooked rice. For example, 4 cups of stock for 1 cup of rice. Keep it simmering in another pan and add it to the risotto hot.
  • Really, the right amount of stock to add is enough. Just because a recipe calls for 4 cups of stock yours might not be cooked by the time all of the stock is added. Maybe it was boiling rapidly on the other burner and reduced down too much? No big deal, all the flavour is still there. Simply make up the difference by adding more simmering stock or boiling water in the same way until the risotto's finished.
  • When the rice is just cooked (it should still have some bite) and a touch more soupy that you'd like, turn off the heat and cover for 3-5 minutes. The rice will absorb some additional liquid and thicken.
  • Add the butter and cheese at the end and stir vigorously to form a creamy emulsion.
  • With additions, if you don't want them to become soggy (e.g. bacon) don't cook them inside the risotto itself. Cook them in a separate pan and scatter them on top at the end.

As well as my 'basic' risotto recipe, I've included the recipe for the mushroom risotto I made the other night as an example of how the basic recipe can be expanded upon.

Basic risotto recipe

Ingredients (serves 2):

  • 3 cups of stock
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 shallot, diced finely
  • 2 cloves of garlic, diced finely
  • 2/3 cup of carnaroli rice
  • A splash of dry white wine
  • 4 tbsp butter, cut into small cubes
  • 1/3 cup parmigiano reggiano, grated
  • Salt, to taste

1. Bring the stock to a simmer. Meanwhile in a separate pan, slowly cook the shallots and garlic with a pinch of salt until they soften.
2. Add the rice to the shallots and toast on a high heat for about a minute, stirring (don't let it brown). Splash in the wine wine and simmer until the alcohol has cooked away (about 30 seconds).
4. Add a ladle of stock and a small pinch of salt to the rice and reduce the heat to a moderate simmer. When that liquid has absorbed, give the rice a vigorous stir and add more stock. Repeat until the rice is just cooked (it should still have some bite) and a little more soupy that desired, then remove from the heat and leave covered for 3 minutes.
5. Vigorously stir in the butter and cheese to emulsify, then season to taste and serve.

Wild mushroom risotto

Ingredients (serves 2):

  • 3 cups of duck stock
  • 15 g dried porcini mushrooms
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 shallot, diced finely
  • 2 cloves of garlic, diced finely
  • 2/3 cup of carnaroli rice
  • A splash of dry white wine
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 1/3 cup parmigiano reggiano, grated
  • 2 handfuls of whatever fresh mushrooms you like (a mixture is good), sliced medium-thickness
  • 1 tbsp flat leaf parsley, chopped roughly
  • Squeeze of lemon juice
  • Salt & black pepper to taste
  • A tiny drizzle of truffle oil1

1. Bring the stock to a simmer, and pour a small amount of the hot stock aside into a cup with the porcini mushrooms to rehydrate.
2. Meanwhile, go ahead with making the basic risotto above. When you toast the rice, add the rehydrated porcini mushrooms (lift them out with a slotted spoon). Instead of the first ladle of stock, pour in the porcini water leaving the last teaspoon full of sediment behind.
3. While resting the almost finished risotto, heat a pan to a very high heat and fry the fresh mushrooms in 1.5 tbsp butter and 1 tbsp olive oil until browned on the outside. Remove from the head, and add the parsley and squeeze of lemon juice. Season with salt and black pepper.
4. Complete the risotto with the butter, cheese, and truffle oil, then serve it with the cooked mushrooms piled on top.

(1) I mean tiny, like 1/4 tsp at most. The truffle aroma should be there if you look for it but not overpowering.

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