Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

There is a common trope about making risotto that goes something like this: Mamma mia! It’s such an awful pain, standing and stirring forever and ever and ever. Well, folks, that’s a bunch of nonsense. I’m not sure when the idea that risotto is such a laborious process started, but we have to put it to rest.

Here’s the truth: Risotto is relatively easy, and it’s relatively quick, and while it does require some time spent stirring by the stove, it is neither excessive nor difficult. I can think of a million kitchen tasks I dislike way more than making risotto. Peeling cloves of garlic is right at the top, but all anyone says about that is, “you can never have too much garlic.” Oh yes you can, just ask the person who has to peel it.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

I’m going to walk you through the essential techniques of making perfect risotto, we will go over the proper doneness and consistency of the rice, and I will show you a restaurant shortcut for preparing it in advance so that it’s easy to serve it to guests without getting stuck in the kitchen for more than a few minutes. Hopefully once we’re done, word will spread, and one day no one will gripe about risotto again because we will all understand that it’s one of the easiest things to make.

I’m going to use the classic risotto al parmigiano as my example. It’s the perfect recipe for focusing more generally on risotto technique because of its simplicity, calling for what are essentially risotto’s most basic ingredients: fat, onion, rice, broth, and cheese. The result is a very simple, yet very delicious risotto rich with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

What Are the Defining Elements of Great Risotto?

In classic French cuisine, the test of a good cook is how well they can prepare a French omelette. If I want to know how skilled a cook is at Italian food, risotto is one easy benchmark by which to measure. The strange thing about risotto is despite its fundamental ease, very few know how to do it well—not most professional cooks, not many food stylists, and not the majority of food writers and bloggers who seem to think they have recipes worth sharing for it. Want proof? Just Google “risotto” and review the image results. Count how many show the rice in a sloping pile that’s thick and lumpy, not fluid. Those are all examples of subpar risotto technique. And they abound.

While personal preference plays an important role in assessing what “good” means—there’s not one universal standard that all will agree to—risotto should, generally speaking, feature grains of rice in a thickened and creamy sauce that readily flows, settling into a shallow, flattened pool with little more than a shake of the plate. We’re talking something a bit thicker than most cream of mushroom soups but thinner than most bowls of oatmeal.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

The secret to nailing this consistency almost entirely comes down to managing heat, moisture, and time.

Heat, because the natural starches in risotto thicken the sauce as it cools; this is why you want to serve risotto on warmed plates and also why you want to plate it when it’s even thinner than seems right—because it will thicken up, and quickly.Moisture, because risotto requires constant adjustment in its final phases, allowing excess liquid to cook off or be absorbed, or possibly adding liquid at any point if the risotto suddenly seems too thick and dry, especially after cheese has been worked in.Time, because the rice will continue to drink up the liquid, so once you have your risotto at its moment of perfection just before serving, you must not wait.

The other thing a well-made risotto requires are al dente grains of rice, and my experience is that many cooks don’t quite understand what that means. There isn’t one correct opinion on just how firm the grains of rice should be, but at the very least, each grain of rice should have a discernible bite in its center, a remnant firmness that will strike some as being extremely undercooked compared to almost any other rice dish they’ve ever eaten. For many risotto lovers, a truly raw core of crunchy rice is an absolute requirement—I don’t personally like it quite that underdone, but many Italian food experts I respect do.

If I had to guess, I’d say overcooking the rice may be one of the things that has led so many people to believe risotto takes forever to cook. It sure does take long if you’re standing there waiting for the rice to fully soften! But don’t wait that long. It shouldn’t take more than 15 or 20 minutes or so to cook the rice in the liquid. Hardly a slog.

Getting that perfect al dente texture is largely a question of technique, but it’s also influenced by the type of rice. The most common varieties of rice for risotto are arborio, carnaroli, and vialone nano, but of the three, arborio is by far the most common. That’s too bad, because arborio is the most prone to turning mushy and producing an overly thick result.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

This has to do with each variety’s relative amounts of the starches amylose and amylopectin. All three are types of short- to medium-grain rice, but arborio has almost no amylose, which has a more linear molecular structure that provides structure and stability. Amylopectin, which is basically the only starch arborio has to offer, is a more twisting and branched starch molecule, giving it enhanced thickening power along with a tendency towards excessive softness. If you can find them, you’re better off with carnaroli or vialone nano, which have higher levels of amylose.

Risotto Technique: A Closer Look

We’ve long relied on a no-stir technique developed by Kenji for almost all risotto recipes on Serious Eats, including some of mine. It’s a cool and unorthodox method that starts by rinsing the rice with stock to wash off its surface starches. The rice is then sautéed in oil, and after that most of the starchy stock used for rinsing the rice is added to the pan all at once. The pan is covered and left to simmer until the rice is nearly done. The final steps involve finishing the risotto with additional stock, cheese, and whatever else the recipe might call for.

The logic of rinsing the rice has to do with the fact that starches lose their thickening power when exposed to high heat. In the case of risotto, that means the surface starches on rice don’t thicken as well after the obligatory toasting step, which is important for developing the rice’s flavor. This is the same phenomenon we see with roux: The more deeply you toast the flour, the less well it acts as a thickener. So, by rinsing the rice of its surface starches before toasting, you allow those starches to retain their maximum thickening ability once they’re added back to the pan.

But here’s where I admit something: Despite writing some of my own risotto recipes using this technique, I never actually use the method at home. Not because it doesn’t work, I just don’t find it solves any problems I have with risotto. For one thing, while I know it’s technically true that the starches thicken less well when toasted—you can see as much in side-by-side tests—I don’t think it matters in practice. With all the agitation of the rice during cooking, and with the additions of cheese and other ingredients that further thicken the liquid, excessive thinness is not something I have ever found in a classically prepared risotto.

I also don’t mind the brief period of stirring the classic method requires. I honestly like it. It’s meditative, and it allows me to pay attention to the food as it’s cooking. Risotto is all about managing moisture, heat, and time, and so I like to watch it transform and develop. Since it only takes about 15 minutes, it’s not much of a time investment, and it saves me having to do the no-stirring method’s additional steps of rinsing and draining the rice at the beginning of the process. There’s gonna be time spent doing something extra no matter what—you’re either washing and draining the rice first, or you’re stirring a little more. Not a big deal either way.

Over time, I’ve come to re-embrace the classic technique. Both methods have their value, but I’d encourage home cooks reading this to at least sometimes follow the classic method, because it is the best way to develop a sense of how the rice cooks, how it continuously dries out and thickens during that time, and to assess just how far along the road to doneness it is. In light of how poorly so many people cook risotto, any method that encourages paying more attention and adjusting as you go is a good method in my book.

Step 1: Sauté the Onion

Risotto starts with sweating a minced onion (or a shallot, or maybe even a leek if you want to change the allium up) in fat until translucent and tender, but generally not browned. I like to mince my onion finely enough that the pieces are roughly the size of the rice grains, just to avoid big chunks in the finished dish. As for the fat, oil, whether olive oil or a neutral oil, is a good choice since it’s less likely to scorch, but butter is an option too.

Step 2: Toast the Rice

As soon as the onion has softened sufficiently, it’s time to stir in the rice and toast it in the oil. This toasting step develops a nuttier flavor in the rice, for a more complex risotto. As I mentioned above, while it does technically lessen the ability of surface starches to thicken the risotto, in practice the effect is negligible—there is no difficulty getting toasted rice to produce a beautifully creamy final dish.

The visual indicator of doneness I’ve always used when toasting the rice is to stop when each grain becomes translucent around its exterior; the best way I’ve ever seen it described is that the rice grains should look like tiny ice cubes with a cloudy center. Other indicators you’ve toasted it enough: The rice smells toasty and you begin to see signs that browning is imminent.

Step 3: Add the Liquids in Increments

Adding liquid is how we stop the toasting rice and onion from browning and get on with actually hydrating and cooking the rice. In most cases, I like the first addition to be wine, usually white though it depends on the recipe, which I cook while stirring until the pan has gone almost totally dry and the wine’s raw alcohol aroma has mostly cooked off. Otherwise you risk risotto that tastes boozy.

After adding wine, I switch to stock. What kind of stock has to do with two things: the specific risotto recipe and also what you happen to have available. Some risotto is best with a deeper, meatier flavor, which could mean using chicken stock or beef stock. Others, especially seafood risotto, benefit from a fish or shellfish stock. And others still work best when the stock is kept as mild as possible, such as a very basic vegetable stock.

Keep in mind that the flavor of your stock or broth will concentrate as you add it to the rice. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there could be a point where you’ll want to switch from a more full-flavored stock to plain water.

There are two common details in most risotto recipes that are worth addressing: One is to heat your stock before adding it to the rice, and the other is to add it in a series of small additions, cooking the liquid down each time between additions. You don’t really need to do either of these things. You could add your stock cold, it’ll just take a little longer since each addition will drop the temperature in the pan, requiting longer to heat back up. Some claim that it’s therefore not necessary since pre-heating the stock adds time. But that forgets an important point: You’re already spending time doing other things before the stock is called for in the recipe, like mincing the onion and sautéing it and the rice. That’s the perfect time to have the stock sitting on a flame in a pot, and it will shave off time later in the process.

As for adding the stock in multiple small increments, it’s true that you don’t have to, you could dump a large volume in and let the risotto cook and thicken in more or less one go, with just a few finishing steps at the end. But once again, I fail to see what the harm is of smaller additions: They’re useful in that they make it much easier to dial in the rice’s final al dente texture and to nail the proper consistency of the sauce at the same time, which, based on all available evidence, most people are pretty bad at. Why disadvantage them further? Better to add the stock bit by bit so you have total control over coordinating the risotto’s final stages.

Step 4: Finish and Serve

The final step in the risotto process is critically important. This is what will determine whether the risotto has reached its ideal form or not. It involves making final adjustments to the seasonings and consistency of the risotto, and then working in fat and flavor in the form of grated cheese and/or cold fat like butter to form the creamiest, silkiest, glossiest sauce. As always, the finished risotto should be spooned onto warmed plates to prevent it from cooling down rapidly and thickening prematurely.

This is such an important step that I’m going to talk about it more in the next section, dedicated entirely to the art of finishing risotto.

All’Onda and Mantecatura: The Art of Finishing Risotto

Italians speak of cooking risotto “all’onda,” which means like a wave. It describes the finishing process of a great risotto, in which the rice is rapidly tossed in the pan. It should be loose enough to flip over itself in a dramatic wave-like motion, which enhances creaminess by making the rice grains rub against each other over and over while, some claim, incorporating air for a lighter result. I used to rely on a restaurant trick of folding whipped cream into a risotto to finish, but cooking risotto all’onda is the truer way to make a risotto that’s silky and creamy, with a deeper and more concentrated flavor of both the rice and its flavorings that isn’t diluted and overshadowed by excessive amounts of dairy.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

This gets us to the second thing that’s happening when you’re finishing risotto all’onda: a process called mantecatura. This describes the emulsification of additional fat into the risotto at the end, adding a final glaze of richness and creaminess (without drowning the risotto in whipped cream). Grated cheese, usually Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano and cold butter are the fats I turn to the most for the mantecatura, but they aren’t the only options. To perform the mantecatura, you simply add the cheese and cubed butter to the risotto and work it completely in while flipping the risotto on itself all’onda. This should all be done off the heat, but you should be prepared to add another small ladleful or two of hot broth if the risotto becomes too thick after this process. Remember: You’re making tiny adjustments to texture and consistency right up until the risotto hits the warmed plates.

If you want to toss your risotto all’onda, you will need the right kind of pan. It should be broad and wide, with sloping sides. The “pasta pan” I have written about before is perfect; a 5-quart saucier will work very well; a 3-quart saucier will also work but be a bit less spacious and therefore more difficult to use without making a mess.

If you don’t have any of those pieces of cookware, don’t fret: You can still approximate cooking risotto all’onda with some vigorous stirring with a spoon while using something larger and heavier like a Dutch oven; its heaviness and vertical sides will make tossing inadvisable, but just stir, stir, stir. The effect will be similar enough. You could also use a large sauté pan, but its lower sides will run a higher risk of a slosh-over unless you stir very carefully and delicately, which isn’t ideal.

Restaurant Trick: How to Make Risotto in Advance

Okay, so I’ve gone on at length about how risotto is both easy and quick. I stand by that. But there’s no doubt that if you have guests over, the roughly 30 minutes from start to finish that it does require can be inconvenient. Luckily, there’s a solution and it’s one restaurants have been using for ages, because guess what—they don’t have time to cook risotto from start to finish every time an order comes in either.

It’s this simple: Cook your risotto, starting with the onion cooking step, followed by the rice toasting step, and on the the wine and broth steps. Just stop when the rice as about half to three-quarters of the way cooked. Then scrape the rice out onto a rimmed baking sheet or two and spread it in a thin, even layer. This is important because if you pile it up too high, the rice trapped underneath will stay hot and continue to cook for longer than the rice on top, and we don’t want that. Let it cool completely, then transfer the rice to an airtight container and refrigerate it.

When it’s time to eat, simple scoop the par-cooked risotto back into the pan and continue on with the process of adding broth in small increments until the risotto has reached its proper al dente stage and is ready to be finished all’onda.

Set serving plates in a very low over or other warm location to keep warm until serving time. In a 3- or 5-quart saucier or medium Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion, season lightly with salt, and cook, stirring frequently, until onion is translucent and soft but not browned, about 5 minutes.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Increase heat to medium-high, add rice, and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until rice is evenly coated in oil and toasted but not browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Rice should smell nutty and grains should start to look like tiny ice cubes: translucent around the edges and cloudy in the center.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Add white wine and cook until wine is almost completely evaporated, about 30 seconds. Add 1/2 cup of stock and season lightly with salt. Cook, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, until liquid is mostly absorbed, 1 to 2 minutes. Continue to cook, adding stock in 1/2-cup increments while stirring constantly, until rice is almost fully softened but still retains a noticeable al dente bite in the center, 15 to 20 minutes. Add enough stock so that there is enough liquid in the pot for the rice flow like lava when you stir it. Remove from heat.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Add cheese and butter and stir or toss vigorously until cheese and butter are fully melted and emulsified and a creamy, satiny glaze coats each grain of rice. Keep in mind that the risotto will tighten up in the time it takes to plate and serve it, so adjust with more stock as needed to achieve a free-flowing consistency, leaving it looser than you think it should be. Season with additional salt, if needed.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Spoon risotto onto warmed plates (plates are more traditional than bowls), shaking gently to spread risotto out over each plate in an even layer. Serve right away.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

3- or 5-quart saucier or medium Dutch oven

Make-Ahead and Storage

See section above on the restaurant trick for making risotto in advance. Once finished, risotto is best eaten right away, though leftovers can be fried into a pancake in a preparation called risotto al salto.

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