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.)

1 of 3 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Jim said,

    April 10, 2007 at 6:29 am

    and the first time without an explicit recipe

    Oh, my! :)

    I always thought the gradual addition was (a) because risotto is not about doing anything fast and (b) to minimize mess-making. Otherwise, you’ll tend to stir the liquid too quickly, causing it to rise above the saute pan, spilling over and angering the dish fairy. It seems like a similar, slow addition concept would apply to making rice pudding.

    Sauteing anything in butter improves its flavor :-o Try garlic at a *very low* temperature for ~20-25 minutes.

  2. Elizabeth said,

    April 10, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    (Knew it already.)

    Umm. You should have asked your risotto-making and extremely cute Italian friend!! I have even made risotto for you before! I’m verily bummed that I disappointed your scientific Kiriosity.

    I like Jim’s theory about the dish fairy, though. That dish fairy can be one crazy wench if you get her mad.


  3. wkiri said,

    April 10, 2007 at 8:27 pm

    Yes, you did make risotto for me, as I looked on in awe and was astonished at the miracle you wrought. :) Like many things, I think my questions did not articulate themselves until I was trying to do it myself. Had you been here, I would certainly have consulted the expert!

    I was specifically hoping that you would see this post and add any additional insights that your Italian cooking heritage, or even your vast cooking experience, have bequeathed upon you. :)

  4. Iain said,

    April 10, 2007 at 9:53 pm

    (Knew it already.)

    I love eating risotto, but have never been satisfied making it. My recollection is that my favorite Italian restaurant does not use arborio, but uses some other varietal. (Carnaroli? Natarajan?)

    I recommend the film ‘Big Night.’ A central conflict in the film is the time risotto takes to make.

    Personally, I love the way that risotto makes something wonderfully wholesome. Real comfort food.

    My personal favorite ingedient in risotto is peas.

  5. Jim said,

    April 11, 2007 at 11:09 pm

    What do you recommend for broth?

  6. Elizabeth said,

    April 12, 2007 at 7:09 pm

    The broth should complement the ingredients in the risotto. I like vegetable broth for many veggie risotti,particularly those that feature strongly-flavored veggies like sundried tomatoes. Chicken broth pairs well with delicate flavors like asparagus and seafood. Try beef broth with a mushroom, onion, or shallot risotto – yum. A really unusual one that I saw recently was a broth made with the rinds of parmesan cheese, creating an intensely parmesan-flavored risotto.

    Homemade broth is always best, but if you get it in the store, look for a low-sodium version, as some of the commercial brands can ruin your nice balance of flavors with their heavy salt content. I also like a bouillion paste called “Better than Bouillion” that comes in a jar because you can tailor how much of it you add to the water to suit how strong you want your broth-taste to come through.

    May you be well and eat what you like.

  7. Heuristics Inc. said,

    April 20, 2007 at 12:05 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    Very cool. I have not attempted risotto, but we should sometime.

    “Scientific Kiriosity” is the best phrase I’ve heard in a while!

    I would like to ask about “Adverbs” since I see it in your sidebar. Have you read Snicket and are there similarities? I am tempted to check out this book since I like the others a lot.

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