Cooking

TT Culinary Institute: Risotto

Master this creamy Italian classic
Learn How to Cook the Perfect Bowl of Risotto
Photos: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table

These days, it's rare to give anything, let alone a weeknight dinner, your undivided attention. But tonight, we're asking you to make an exception. It's time to master risotto, the classic Italian rice dish that's as classy as it is comforting.

"So many recipes have been geared for ease in the 'set it and forget it' mold that when faced with a dish that requires constant (if extremely minimal) intervention, it becomes a question of how to stay on task until it's done, knowing that you will not be multitasking or checking Instagram while you are stirring the rice," Fiore Tedesco, chef of L'Oca d'Oro restaurant in Austin, Texas, says. "The beauty of a simple dish like risotto is that when you give love and attention to the process, it rewards you instantly."

The emphasis on simplicity is a motif every chef we talk to about risotto touches on. As Melissa Rodriguez, executive chef of Del Posto in NYC, puts it, "It's simple, elegant and a crowd-pleaser for both young and old."

The format, too, is simple: Toast the rice with sautéed onions before slow-cooking it in ladle by ladle of wine and stock. We add a few small twists to bump up the flavor, and fortify the chicken stock with herbs and a Parmesan rind before stirring it into the rice and adding more grated Parmesan at the end (see the recipe). With a little help from our friends (aka some of the country's best Italian chefs), we've put together a step-by-step guide for guaranteed success.

The Rice Is Right

First, short-grain rice is a must, because it has a higher starch content. As you stir, the constant friction releases starch into the stock, which thickens into the creamy sauce that coats the rice.

"Carnaroli!" Tony Mantuano, chef of Spiaggia in Chicago, swears is the only choice of rice for risotto. However, there are multiple varieties when it comes to the type of short-grain rice you can use. You're probably familiar with Arborio rice, another common and perfectly good option.

While Mantuano obviously has strong feelings, Tedesco focuses more on the quality of rice than the type. "I reserve judgment on each small bag of beautiful rice, whether it be carnaroli, Arborio or even bomba rice," he tells us.

Don't Walk Away, Renee

"Walking away from the process will result in something that is not risotto," Mantuano says. The creaminess is completely dependent on steady stirring and the addition of liquid. Staying attentive allows you to navigate the dish and determine when to add more stock.

Another potential misfire, Mantuano warns, is overcooking the rice. Like pasta, the rice should be al dente, and we have a clever trick for judging when that is: Remove a grain from the pot and place it on a plate. Press it with you fingers, and you'll notice little beads of starch . If you see three beads of starch, it needs to cook longer. See only two? Then your rice is ready (check out our slideshow for a visual).

Stir Crazy

Risotto doesn't need anything but a good stir to make it shine, but if you want to get creative, it's the perfect blank canvas for mix-ins. Considering it's one of the world's most romantic dishes (it was one of the first meals Tedesco cooked for his wife when they were dating), we recommend putting a little heart into it.

Mantuano loves a classic risotto mixed with butter, cheese and a splash of Barolo wine to pair with what's in his glass. Tedesco enjoys stirring in toasted pine nuts for texture or French sorrel for its lemony flavor. Rodriguez likes to add truffles if it's the right time of year.

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Just remember to serve your risotto as soon as it's ready. As Mantuano says, "Risotto waits for no one."

  • Always bring your chicken stock to a simmer before adding it in. This ensures the rice will continue to simmer and cook at an even rate, instead of cooling down.

  • When you're bringing the stock to a simmer, drop in aromatic herbs and a Parmesan rind to add more flavor to the risotto.

  • Start by sweating the onion and garlic in olive oil. You don't want to achieve any color.

  • Add the rice and cook until toasted and fragrant.

  • Before adding the stock, stir in the wine, cooking until it's completely absorbed.

  • Little by little, add stock to the pot and cook, stirring constantly until absorbed.

  • Make sure the stock is completely absorbed before adding another ladleful to the rice. This is where stirring constantly and being attentive to the rice comes into play.

  • It may seem like a lot of stock, but as the risotto cooks, the stock reduces. 

  • To test your rice, press a grain against a plate and look for the beads of starch. If you see three beads, like these grains have, then you need to keep cooking until you can see only two beads.

  • Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

  • To finish, add lemon zest and plenty of Parmesan cheese for a bright and cheesy risotto.

  • Finally, stir in butter to emulsify into the sauce for an extremely creamy dish.

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