Recently, an innocent bystander asked me how much cream I put in my risotto. When my eyes receded back into their sockets and the steam stopped blowing out of my ears, I very calmly replied, “Don’t – ever – put – cream – in – risotto!”
Turns out my hapless inquirer had read a cookbook containing recipes from a well-known French restaurant in California. At least now I understood how he could ask such a ridiculous question. The French are simply obsessed with cream. Sometime after the 16 th century Italian chefs of Caterina de Medici taught them how to get around in a kitchen, French cooks developed a thing about cream and started putting it in absolutely everything.
But, I say again, there is no cream in a proper risotto.
Risotto is a staple in Northern Italian cooking, especially in Milanese cuisine. Cooks in the northern regions of Italy rely on rice much more than those in the more pasta oriented areas to the south. Lombardia, Piemonte and the Veneto abound in rice paddies.
Some people think “risotto” is the Italian word for rice. Not so. “Riso” is the Italian word for rice. Risotto is a wonderfully rich, creamy way to prepare rice. A lot of people are afraid of risotto because it takes a lot of slow stirring, a lot of attention to detail, and a lot of patience. You can’t just put the rice in water, bring it to a boil, turn it down to a simmer, and walk away for fifteen minutes. Risotto demands your attention, but the results are worth the effort.
Unlike American rice dishes, which primarily utilize long grain rice, risotto is made using a short grain rice, such as Arborio, or medium grains like Carnaroli or Vialone Nano. These rices absorb more liquids, release more starches and are stickier than the long grain varieties. In fact, they are graded by their ability to absorb liquids; Carnaroli and Arborio are designated “superfino” (or “extra fine”). Vialone Nano is a “semifino” rice whose grains are capable of absorbing up to twice their own weight in liquid. Vialone Nano and Carnaroli are more commonly used for risotto in Italy, but Arborio is a little more readily available in the United States.
Here’s the “food science” reason for why risotto works. All types of rice contain the starches amylose and amylopectin. Different types of rice contain different proportions of amylose and amylopectin. It is this ratio that determines how a particular rice will perform when cooked.
Amylose is a long, straight starch molecule that does not gelatinize during cooking. This tends to make the rice grains fluffy and separate when cooked. Amylopectin molecules are shorter and have lots of little projections or branches sticking out. This makes the rice sticky when released during cooking. Long grain rice has the most amylose and the least amylopectin. Medium grain rice has more amylopectin than amylose, and short grain rice has an even higher amylopectin content with little to no amylose. This kind of rice gives up huge amounts of starch to the surrounding environment as it cooks, resulting in a finished product that is either very creamy or very sticky. Both are essential to a good risotto.
Two other elements essential to a successful risotto are hot liquid and stirring. Lots of stirring. Some cooks even advocate constant stirring, but I have found that frequent stirring will suffice. Stirring is necessary because it helps the rice grains rub off some of their starch and hot liquid is important because cold liquid shocks the rice and causes it to flake on the outside while staying hard at the core.
So how do all these elements come together to make a creamy, delicious risotto? Glad you asked.
First, assemble the following ingredients:
2 cups chicken broth or stock, divided
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 cup Arborio rice
1/4 cup dry white wine, slightly warmed
1 cup water
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 tbsp finely chopped Italian flat leaf parsley
Now, in a medium saucepan, bring the chicken broth to a boil, then lower the heat enough to just keep the broth warm.
In another medium saucepan, heat the olive oil and butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté 4 or 5 minutes or until the onion is tender. Add the garlic and continue to sauté for 3 or 4 minutes more. DON’T let the garlic brown or it will turn bitter!
Time to stir in the uncooked rice. Do this gently, making sure that all the rice is coated in the oil and butter, and cook, stirring frequently, until the rice becomes translucent.
Now come the liquids. Stir in the slightly warmed wine and cook for a minute or two until the liquid evaporates. Reduce the heat to low and add about 1/2 cup of the warm chicken broth. Stir until the liquid is absorbed. When you can pull the spoon through the rice and see the bottom of the pan, it’s time to add more liquid, so pour in another 1/2 cup of broth. Stir and repeat. When you reach the point where about 3/4 of the broth has been added and stirred in, start tasting for doneness. If the rice is still a little dry at the center, keep adding the remaining liquid until it becomes creamy and just barely al dente, just like you would with pasta. You may not need all the liquid, or you may need a few tablespoons more, in which case a little hot water will work just fine. Test for seasoning and add a little salt only if you think you really need it.
At this point, stir in the grated cheese and the chopped parsley, making sure everything is thoroughly incorporated. This is also the point at which you would add any additional flavorings, such as mushrooms or spinach or whatever. Unless you’re making Risotto Milanese, wherein you would add a pinch of saffron along with the wine.
And in defense of the French, you could add cream to your risotto as a flavor component, but if you need cream to make it creamy, then you’ve done something horribly wrong.
Fancy restaurants will serve risotto formed in ring molds or something, but most Italians just enjoy it family style.