Watch any cooking competition show on TV, from Top Chef to Master Chef, and you’ll eventually learn one golden rule to keep in mind should you ever decide to become a competitor. Do not cook risotto.
Fistfuls of fine chefs have been kicked out of cooking competitions for failing to prepare an acceptable risotto for the stern judges, who inevitably warn them that such a simple recipe is deceptively complex. It is the consistency that gets them: the balance of creamy/liquidy versus al dente and rice-like. There seems to be a discrepancy in what even good chefs perceive as the correct “solidity” of risotto, versus what the in-the-know judges feel is appropriate.
The trick is to know when to stop adding liquid. A good finished risotto should ooze off its spoon and travel around the plate—not liquid, but certainly nowhere near fried rice, which is the layman’s association with risotto.
Italy actually has Spain to thank for its risotto tradition. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Milan was under rule of the Spanish Habsburgs, and the majority of the ruling class consisted of Spaniards who imported their favorite foods to this outpost of their empire. Slow-cooking techniques, and rice-based dishes, had featured in Spanish cuisine for centuries, as had the use of saffron as a key flavor (think of paella).
The first known risotto dish was risotto alla Milanese, which is flavored with saffron. This dish could not be simpler in its components: short-grained rice, butter, onions, parmesan cheese, white wine, stock, and saffron. Replace saffron with any ingredients of your choice to create any risotto dish. Other traditional variations on risotto include risotto al Barolo, from the Piedmont region, which features red wine and crumbled sausage meat; risotto alla sepia, a Venetian dish that is served black with cuttlefish ink and fresh cuttlefish; and risi e bisi, from the mainland Veneto, which includes fresh garden peas and pancetta.
For my own attempt at risotto for my Cooking the Classics series, I’ve selected an entirely traditional risotto, but one which takes advantage of a brilliant fresh ingredient to which I have access at the moment: porcini mushrooms. All good risottos begin the same way, and are easy to cook (though difficult to master). They take about twenty or so minutes of constant stirring—that’s not a lot of time, but for some reason it puts off amateur cooks who are used to more instant meals.
For my porcini risotto, I begin by sautéing the chopped mushrooms in butter, until they are mostly cooked. I then remove them from the pan, set them aside, but continue to use the same pan to sauté diced onions (ideally in nice, small pieces) until they are clear and glassy. Then you add the uncooked rice—I use Arborio, since it’s easy to find and is the classic standard. The rice is quickly tossed with butter and olive oil around the hot pan and the warm onions, effectively toasting the grains.
Here’s where I encountered my first hiccup. The danger of toasting uncooked rice is that it can burn pretty easily, if it’s not constantly moving and if the temperature is too high. Some of the grains started to stick to the bottom of the pan, and that’s not what you want. In some dishes, slightly crusty, blackened, saucy rice is a good thing, adding crunch and that wonderful burnt-end flavor. Not here. Risotto should be creamy, smooth, warming goodness. Crunch is not part of the appeal. Out goes one batch, and I start anew.
This time I constantly move the rice at a low temperature, and nothing sticks. Then I add the liquid. Here theories differ, but from my research, I think first adding dry white wine is a good bet, allowing this to be liquid in which our rice cooks. I add just a small amount at a time, stirring it as I go, careful not to let it burn. Purists will tell you that you should stir risotto only with a wooden spoon. I’m not sure if that’s superstition, tradition, or has scientific merit, but if in doubt, I say go with the traditional method. Once the wine has absorbed, I add stock in large spoonfuls, allowing each to absorb and plump the toasty rice grains before I add another spoonful.
You do not want to pour in a half-liter of stock all in one go. The rice will eventually absorb it, but you’ll end up with a soupy lump. The key to award-winning risottos is al dente rice, which requires a gentle chew, but in an overall saucy form with body to it, halfway between a sauce and fried rice. When the rice is mostly cooked, I add the porcini mushrooms (at this point you could add whichever additional ingredient you like, from cuttlefish to pancetta to saffron), along with a healthy shower of shaved parmesan, and continue cooking. You don’t want to cook the additional ingredients throughout, because they would grow soggy from all the liquid that the rice needs to absorb.
Now the million dollar question is how much stock you add, and when you stop cooking. How you answer that separates the Top Chef winners from those eliminated. For our purposes, I can’t really tell you. I know what the finished risotto should feel like, after years of living and eating in Italy. But that desired texture is awfully hard to convey in words, and cannot be accurately timed. I could tell you to add 1 quart chicken stock and ½ cup of white wine to one brimming cup of Arborio rice (as some recipes do), adding the liquid slowly, until the rice has some bite to it, but the overall dish is creamy in texture—about 20-30 minutes. But that is an exercise in inaccuracy. You have to get a feel for it. Too long, and too much liquid, and you end up with a tasty product but with an unpleasant consistency that is too much like a sauce. Too little and it’ll still taste okay, but it will be more like Italian fried rice.
You’ve just got to practice, get a feel for it, but preferably do so after eating some bowls of perfectly-prepared risotto at Italian restaurants, conducting a little research to get a sense of how it should be. Through practice and a willingness to commit those twenty or so minutes to good home cooking, you’ll be rewarded with a difficult-to-goof-up treat that will wow friends and family.