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Water Cooler: A beginner’s guide to risotto

UPDATED: Thu., March 4, 2021

Risotto is a simple Italian rice dish that calls for cooking a starchy rice in broth, a scoop at a time, and seasoned with a hard cheese like parmesan, butter and cracked pepper. Sauteed mushrooms can be added after the risotto is cooked for an earthy flavor.  (Pixabay)
Risotto is a simple Italian rice dish that calls for cooking a starchy rice in broth, a scoop at a time, and seasoned with a hard cheese like parmesan, butter and cracked pepper. Sauteed mushrooms can be added after the risotto is cooked for an earthy flavor. (Pixabay)

Risotto is a hearty, versatile and budget-friendly dish. This Italian dish has many regional varieties, and professional and home cooks alike can easily put their own spin on it by adding different vegetables or seasonings. Once you learn the basics of risotto, you can use it as a go-to for a quick and nutritious lunch or dinner.

The dish is surprisingly simple, despite its reputation. There are a few particular details about the recipe and cooking method that are important to follow, but they are easy to execute.

The most important detail is that you have to use a specific type of white rice. Any round medium-or short-grain rice will suffice, but amylopectin varieties with high starch content are better.

Starch has two types of molecules. Amylopectin is large with a branched structure. The other molecule, amylose, has a straight, corkscrewlike structure. In a starchy food like rice, varieties with high amounts of amylopectin tend to become more gelatinous and sticky when cooked. This is perfect for risotto because the rice must absorb a lot of moisture in order to create a creamy consistency. Varieties with high amounts of amylose are used for dry rice dishes that result in fluffy, singular grains of rice.

The rice varieties used most commonly for risotto in Italy are Arborio, Baldo, Carnaroli, Maratelli, Padano, Roma and Vialone Nano. In the United States, Arborio is the more widely available and popular variety.

The other important detail is risotto requires constant attention and stirring. Nothing complicated, but dedicate yourself to those 15 minutes that risotto needs your undivided attention, and it will reward you with not becoming a scaled mess on the bottom of the pan.

To begin, heat 4½ cups of broth in a medium saucepan. A common choice is chicken stock, but you can also use vegetable or fish broth. Let the stock come to a boil, then turn the heat to low so it will be ready for the rice later on.

Measure 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter and grate ⅓ cup of hard cheese. Most recipes call for parmesan, but you can also use cheese like Romano, Asiago or Grana Padano. Set aside for later.

Finely dice two shallots or half of a yellow onion and mince three cloves of garlic. Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil to a medium saucepan or high-walled skillet and let it come to temperature at a low-medium heat. Add the garlic and shallots or onion to the oil and saute until soft and fragrant, anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes depending on how much time you have and how much caramelization you prefer.

Add 1½ cups of Arborio rice and keep stirring as it toasts. This should take about 30 seconds to a minute until the rice takes on a light golden color in some areas. Add ½ cup of dry white wine. This is optional, but the most traditional seasoning to use is saffron, as it was commonly used to add pigment and fragrance to rice served at weddings. If you have it, you just need a pinch, lightly crushing before tossing it in. Continue stirring until the wine has mostly evaporated.

Start adding the warm stock to the rice a ½ cup at a time. Once it evaporates, add another ½ cup and repeat until the rice is cooked to al dente. There should be no crunch in the rice, and it should have a thick consistency, almost like a custard. Turn off the heat.

Stir in the butter and grated cheese. Once combined, it is ready to plate. Serve with grated cheese and cracked pepper.

Rachel Baker can be reached at (509) 459-5583 or rachelb@spokesman.com

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