Risotto is not a mystery but rather a miracle! One cup of hard raw short grain becomes a creamy 4-5 cups of comfort food. The risotto making technique itself is pretty easy; it is all the different opinions of how to make it that seems to mystify us. So here, we add yet one more version to consider.
Chef Bob’s grandmother, Nina, made her Risotto with a wooden spoon and said it isn’t done until the spoon stands straight up in the pot. That, of course, is Bob’s benchmark too. There are many more grandmas who have passed down their methods too. We also hear about the wave–a graceful tumble of the finished rice when it is either parted in the pan or jumped as in a sauté. If the rice performs gracefully, it is done!
A discussion about doneness is a common theme for cooking risotto. Descriptions for correct doneness do seem to be pretty consistent, even if the way to get there is not. It is done when the outside of each kernel of rice is creamy and the center still a little firm or al dente, to the tooth.
So let’s get to the method we are using to get great results. We start with EVOO, butter or combination of both. Rice is grown in Italy in the Northern Piedmont region, where it is colder, and so olive trees are not plentiful but dairy cows are. You might say, therefore, the more traditional way to start a Risotto is with butter. But EVOO or a combination is good too.
Next we add what the Italians (and the Spanish word is similar) call “sofrito,” and the French and Americans call “mirepoix.” Both are the word for the aromatics like onion, carrot and celery that bring background flavors to the dish.
When the onion turns a bit translucent, not brown, the rice is added next. The rice must be short to medium grain, arborio being most available in America. It needs to simmer on medium heat here in the fat of choice for up to 6-8 minutes. This step is said to prepare the rice to remain al dente through the process, and in combination with the next step, the addition of wine, prepares the kernels to give up their starch and become creamy. Wine imparts the acid needed, but tomato juice, or fruit juice will do. Don’t move to the next step until the wine is almost dry.
Time, then, to add the hot stock. Another decision to make–what stock? Even with the choice of the three most common liquids, seasoned water, chicken stock, or vegetable stock, the varieties are endless.
Stock is added hot so as not to stop the process by cooling and reheating. It is also added only one ladle, about 3/4 cup, at a time. Cooking at a steady pace and slowly helps create the creamy texture of the rice too. About 12 minutes into the process, start tasting or checking for doneness of the rice. Typically it takes 25 minutes to cook a risotto, with a 3-5 minute rest at the end. Depending on the source and type of rice, it can perform differently, so we need to check doneness as we cook, even when we’ve made it a hundred times before. You may use more or less of the stock than expected.
Let’s imagine a single kernel of perfectly cooked rice. When broken apart the outer edge of the kernel is translucent, and a visible tiny white crunchy center remains. That is what “done” is! Obviously, as the rice cooks the core shrinks; the trick is to pull the rice from the heat before the core disappears.
This is why serving it immediately is always written into recipes for risotto. It waits for no one! It will continue to cook and even turn sticky and gummy if your company is late!
We think the finished risotto needs to be good alone but can be even better with some additions. The last step in making a traditional risotto then is to add ingredients, usually off the heat, that will increase the creaminess, and mouth feel. Again since the rice is grown in the north of Italy, where dairy is supreme, the finish is often cheese and butter and cream or a combination. Not allot, but enough to enhance the creamy texture achieved by the rice.
So summing it up, start to finish, know that attention to the pot is required. There is a long continuum of opinions about this, from stirring constantly to putting it in a pressure cooker with no stirring. We land closer to the stir end of the stick. Not to be paranoid about leaving it still a few minutes but not go far from the pot at any time in the process.
Besides, we enjoy the process of risotto; we relish in the variety that can be created from ordinary panty ingredients, and we appreciate the miracle of the rice as a single cup blooms into enough to feed 3 to five portions, depending on what else is on the menu. And no matter how many times or how much rice we start with it still only takes about 25-30 minutes. Even Rachel Ray would say that it is a 30 minute meal!