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How to Master Risotto

Which is worse: A) attempting to cook something elegant for dinner that’s really hard to make; or B) making something that just takes some extra time and TLC?

If you answered A, you’re in luck: Risotto takes a careful hand and a watchful eye, but making this authentic dish is anything but difficult ... a very good thing when you want to invite old-world Italy into your new-world kitchen.

What is risotto?

Risotto transforms what seem like ordinary rice grains into an extraordinary dish. In Italy it’s usually served as a primo (first course), but on many U.S. restaurant menus and in homes across the country it can be featured entree.

Risotto is revered for its chameleon-like appeal: it’s for meat lovers and vegetarians, it’s hearty enough for folks who wouldn’t dream that rice could be an entree, and it’s the perfect side to accompany your most trusted go-to dinner.

Making risotto: A crash course in method.

In a sturdy saucepan with a darn good handle (3.5-quart pans work well), risotto starts with creating a flavor base that’s usually made by sautéing onions, carrots or other aromatics in olive oil or butter. Into the base goes a possible addition of wine, and then key ingredient: rice.

However, risotto can’t be made with just any rice. Unlike other grains like wild rice or couscous that are typically added to boiling water all at once and cook as the water absorbs, risotto needs a starchy rice (like Arborio) that when the cooking liquid of choice is added in small amounts and the rice is stirred nearly constantly, its starch is released and creates a stickier-than-usual version that makes risotto, risotto.

Is it hard to add a little liquid at a time and stir slowly until it’s gone? No. But it’s this standard, patient, add-stir-add process that allows the rice’s starchy exterior to break down into a creamy, almost sauce-like porridge, leaving a separate center grain still firm enough to be chewed and deliciously enjoyed after it’s been mixed with your favorite flavors.

Knowing when it’s done.

Fans deem risotto cooked perfectly when it’s al dente, or “to the tooth,” as well-cooked pasta should be. Though the starch makes it sticky, Italians say it should be served all’ onda, or “like a wave”: it should be loose and fluid enough to be spooned into a dish, not piled on as you would a healthy dollop of firm mashed potatoes. Start to finish, it can take about 40 worth-it minutes.

It’s all in the rice...or is it?

While traditional Italian risotto requires starchy rice (Arborio is one of the easiest varieties to find in U.S. markets; Carnaroli and Vialone Nero also work well) non-traditional grains can be used to enhance this very traditional recipe. The cooking method stays the same but the consistency will be different. The experimentation can be exciting!
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  • Farro, or wheat berries, are chestnut-colored and about the size of Arborio grains, but they plump up rounder than rice and have a nutty flavor. Recipes for risotto with farro are sometimes called farro risotto or farrotto.
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  • Barley can be used the way farro is described above, as can a long grain brown rice. The end product definitely won’t yield the same creaminess, but your adventurousness will be rewarded with taste.

Tips and tricks for making risotto your own.

What really makes risotto so special are the endless ways to make the same basic dish. Savory, creamy or sweet, here are our best suggestions for making it your own.

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  • Risotto doesn’t have too many ingredients, so use the highest quality you can afford. And if you can splurge on one item, make it the Parmigiano Reggiano. Salty and nutty in flavor, it’s one of the most popular risotto additions (either during cooking or as a finishing touch) for a reason: it’s superbly delicious.
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  • The “add-stir-add” process of integrating a little broth at a time to your risotto takes a watchful eye, so be prepared not to leave your pot once your cooking starts. Believe it or not, that makes risotto a great starter recipe for making with children because it teaches patience and persistence ... two important attributes of any budding chef.
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  • Wooden spoons are best for how they gently mix rice grains without breaking them. Large plastic serving spoons can work well, too. Avoid metal.
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  • Mushroom risotto is a popular version. To deepen that mushroomy flavor, try using the water from reconstituting dried porcini mushrooms as your cooking liquid, or add it to the chicken, meat or vegetable broth you’re already using.
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  • When possible, warm the broth or liquid you’re using because rice will absorb warm liquid faster than cold. A good trick is to warm it in a microwaveable-safe measuring cup with a spout for easy pouring. Keeping it in an insulated thermos also helps retain that helpful heat.
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  • If you crave something rich, risotto mantecato or “creamy risotto” includes the decadent addition of cream to the cooking method. Try the simple yet elegant preparation of risotto mantecato with lemon.