Risotto revelations

Risotto is such a delicious, savory treat; it’s one of my favorite things to order at Italian restaurants. I’d gotten the impression, though, that it was somehow hard to make at home (and apparently I’m not alone). I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, in fact, risotto is very easy to make. The only downside is that you’ve got to stand at the stove for ~25 minutes, stirring and stirring, as you coax the rice grains into absorbing surprising amounts of your favorite broth. But regular rice takes about as long to cook (albeit without continual tending), and really, stirring is pretty low on the technical cooking skill difficulty scale.

At any rate, while cooking some risotto tonight (for the second time ever, and the first time without an explicit recipe), I found myself wondering at some of the common Risotto Rules. Why is it that you are instructed to add “one cup of broth at a time” (in some cases, “one-half cup of broth at a time”), rather than just throwing all of the broth in at once? And why is it important to saute the rice in oil before adding the broth? Technique aside, how and why does my arborio rice do that super-absorbent trick to turn into risotto?

I pulled my trusty copy of “What Einstein Told His Cook 2” off the shelf and found the following excerpt:

In recent years, several specialty rices have become popular in the United States. One is the traditional Italian arborio rice, a particularly absorptive medium-grain variety. It is rich in amylopectin starch, the branched, bushy molecules of which trap and absorb water quite readily. Arborio rice will easily absorb three times its own volume of stock or broth, making it ideal for risotto.

Most recipes I’ve seen actually have you supply the rice with 4-5 times its volume of broth, which is pretty impressive.

I found even more explanatory details from an HGTV article on risotto, including:

Sauteing rice in butter or oil creates a shell around each grain, allowing the grain to slowly absorb moisture. This will result in creamy risotto, where each grain maintains its own shape.

And how does the rice produce “its own sauce”, as advertised on my package of arborio rice? It’s the high starch content, which when brushed off the rice grains (during stirring) and mixed with broth creates a thick, creamy sauce.

As for the “one cup at a time” instruction, I pondered it while stirring and stirring and finally decided that the only possible difference it could make is in terms of the evaporation rate of the broth. Less un-absorbed broth at once means less lost to evaporation. If google is any guide, the consensus is with me on this one. (However, I did break the rule about having the broth heated before adding it to the mix. Too much work. I just added less at a time, and the resulting risotto seems not to have suffered a bit.)