The Basic Risotto recipe is what the Italians will call Risotto Bianco, or white risotto. It’s made simply with just minimal ingredients that include, butter, olive oil, stock, parmesan and the rice of course.
I’ve just launched a Risotto Masterclass, an 8-week long course, and am also filming it for Udemy. As usual, you, my blog readers, are the lucky recipients of what goes into the course!
Today, we start off with learning all about risotto:
- a little history
- some background
- basic technicalities
- we’ll finish off with the Basic Risotto recipe, or Risotto Bianco (white risotto), which makes a splendid base for endless creativity
Consider this Basic Risotto a template
You can serve it as it is, or adapt it to top with, or add to, any number of ingredients, be it meat, vegetables or seafood.
Tradition will tell you to hold the parmesan if you are adding seafood to this risotto bianco for the simple reason that cheese will overpower the delicate and subtle flavours of seafood.
What is Risotto?
Risotto is a traditional Italian dish of rice cooked in stock, until it reaches a creamy consistency. While completely cooked, the rice still retains a bite to it, much like cooking pasta to the al dente stage. How much of a bite is up to the individual.
A little Risotto Science
This “soft yet hard” nature of risotto is because of the unique properties of Italian risotto rice. The rice kernel is surrounded by a starch known as amylopectin, which breaks down upon heating and regular stirring.
This is what gives us that rich and creamy texture synonymous with risotto (besides the mantecatura, more below). The middle part of the rice grain is made up of amylose, a tougher starch that is more resistant to the dissolving properties of water and heat, giving you that bite.
The texture of risotti found in Italy, from region to region, and cook to cook, does vary. Some people like the thick, compact and almost dry risotto, like in the West (think Lombardy and Piedmont). And some people prefer the loose and almost soupy, like in the East (think the Veneto).
The recipe itself can also determine which one you will be getting. But more of that in the coming weeks.
You’ll see 3 different textures in the images on this post.
Cooking risotto is a very simple process, and as long as you bear a few principles in mind (more below), you will never fail to produce a delicious risotto to please your family and friends.
History of Risotto
Did you know that Italy is Europe’s largest producer of rice? In fact, rice has been grown in the north of Italy since around the 13th century, but interestingly, was initially consumed for medicinal purposes.
Did rice come from the South?
Most scholars agree that rice was introduced to Italy by the Moors, around the 9th/10th century, when they had control of Sicily. From there, it eventually made its way up north to Lombardy some time in the 15th century, and found its “home” in the surrounding flatlands of Piedmont and Tuscany.
Or the North? Or Both?
However, one other theory suggests 2 different routes: the south, as described above, and from the north, via medieval Flanders, when it was under the rule of King Charles V of Spain, along with Lombardy.
Proponents of this theory, cite a particular Flemish rice dish that bore a strong resemblance to Risotto alla Milanese, that yellow, saffron flavoured risotto from Milan. The painting below, by Pieter Brueghel, The Peasant Wedding, shows what might have been the ancestor of the Italian Saffron Risotto.
Many old Italian stories from Lombardy reportedly talk about the saffron risotto as a symbol of celebration, especially weddings, given its rich yellow colour, resembling gold.
But the history of risotto rice is not as smooth a love story as one might think. In fact, it was slightly tempestuous. From its early introduction and success, it fell into disrepute when rice cultivation was associated with diseases like malaria, when it started being grown in water, in the 16th century.
It rose again in popularity but only as a means to feed the hordes of hungry working class. Along with pasta, it became known as la cucina povera, peasant cooking. Food fit only for the poor.
Naturally, in the 21st century, la cucina povera is all the rage!
This trend went up and down until rice was finally accepted and completely embraced by the upper classes in the 19th century. And risotto took its deserved culinary rockstar place on the podium.
The risotto of the early years, from around the 13th to the 17th centuries, was just rice cooked in boiling water. No surprise then, that it was considered only fit for the working class.
It wasn’t until the late 18th century, that rice started being sautéed in butter, and cooked in stock.
The 3 regions where you find le risaie (paddy fields), Piedmont, Lombardy and the Veneto, are also the dairy zones of Italy, where the fat is butter. So the traditional fat of choice for risotto was butter, something many still insist on, solely, when cooking non seafood risotto.
Risotto Rice Picking in “the Old Days”
Before machines came into play in harvesting rice, sometime in the mid 20th century, risotto rice would be picked by women from all over Italy, who would travel to the regions during harvesting, from September to October. These women were called mondine (mondina, singular).
The mondine were essentially cheap labour. They worked long, back breaking hours, with a bag of rice being their meagre payment.
As part of my Italian culinary education, in the days of VHS, I watched this melodramatic Italian movie, Riso Amaro. The movie was about 2 young couples, set against the Italian rice picking season.
Riso Amaro is translated to Bitter Rice or Bitter Laughter, as riso can mean both rice and laughter, in Italian. I am not going to put on my teacher hat and discuss the symbolism, etc, of the movie title; this is a food blog, after all! But you can catch a glimpse of how rice was picked by the mondine in the clip below.
Riso Amaro on YouTube
The 3 Main Types of Risotto Rice
I use all these rice interchangeably, depending on the type of risotto I’m cooking. I love them all; if push comes to shove, I’d have a hard time deciding between carnaroli and vialone nano.
This is a fairly large and plump grain of rice, as you can see from the image below. Probably the most widely available risotto rice outside of Italy, and therefore, the most commonly used.
It is fairly starchy, and produces great risotti (plural of risotto), but perhaps, is also the most easily overcooked, which will give a mushy final result. I reckon many people who have trouble cooking risotti are probably using arborio; when you are new to cooking risotto, it can be difficult to know when to stop!
I am a big fan of arborio too, and as I rather like the compact style risotto, this rice is perfect!
Carnaroli is considered by many to be the best risotto rice. It consistently produces creamy risotto that still maintains a bite. Probably the most “idiot-proof” of the 3 rices! Sorry, I know, not politically correct, but it’s the truth!
Carnaroli is the perfect grain because while its outer layer of amylopectin dissolves beautifully on cooking, at its core, it has more of the “tougher” starch, amylose, and so doesn’t dissolve into mush, but instead, retains the firm bite that is synonymous with the perfect risotto.
Carnaroli was developed in the mid 1940s, just after World War 2, by a Milanese rice grower. He crossed Vialone with a Japanese grain called Lencino (doesn’t sound very Japanese to me).
As you can see from the image below, vialone nano is a small grain. It is grown mainly in the Veneto, and is the rice of choice in the region. There, the consistency of risotti tends to be lighter and looser.
This is the rice I use when opting for a wet, soupy risotto.
How to Make the Best Risotto
First, let me tell you, it’s easy. I run risotto classes for both adults and kids, and many of the kids produce phenomenal results. On the first try. Perhaps because kids don’t come into the kitchen with any fear, nor preconceived notions.
Some years ago, in a risotto class, one of my students asked about the suitability of serving risotto at a dinner party. She showed me a quotation she came across by the late Anthony Bourdain;
Do you really want to make risotto to order when you have eight guests sitting there? No. It won’t work. Most cookbooks won’t tell you that. They will say make it and it will come out perfectly. They should tell you you’re probably going to screw it up the first 10 times you make it.
To say that I was speechless, was putting it mildly. I rather like Bourdain, but was extremely disappointed with the comment. It is exactly that sort of rubbish from celebrity chefs that puts an unnecessary fear of God in so many novice cooks.
So since that day, all my risotto classes have been run as if we were cooking for some friends at the dinner table. I want to show my students, and anyone willing to listen, just how easy and possible it is.
Risotto only takes 25-30 minutes, tops. Get everything ready, serve your guests some wine and nibbles, and chat to them while you cook the risotto. Or get them to cook with you?
So let’s take a look at a few basic guidelines to remember when making Risotto.
How to Make the Perfect Risotto
We’ll address individual topics below, but these are the steps, broken down:
- Toast the onions and rice in fat
- Add wine (skip, if you don’t do alcohol)
- Add stock, a little at a time, stirring frequently
- Mantecatura – the process of beating in cold butter and parmesan to create the final creamy result
Let me tell you right now, for every rule in risotto making, someone is going to advise you to do the exact opposite! These are the guidelines I teach in class, because my newbies have to start somewhere, with good advice. You can do the same: start right and build up the method you are most comfortable with.
Pick the right rice to make risotto
Seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? Want to cook risotto, use risotto rice. If I had a penny for the number of students who thought it was ok to use sushi rice or pudding rice to cook risotto …! I mean seriously!
At this stage, let’s not worry too much about which particular risotto rice. They each have their own characteristic, and as you get a handle on making risotti, you can decide for yourself what you like. To a large extent, it really does all boil down (haha) to individual taste.
Pick the right pan for risotto
No matter what you are cooking, you always want to have a good pan, don’t you? So what pan do we need to make risotto? The usual, sturdy, thick bottom, preferably stainless steel or better still, copper. Aluminium pots can create hot spots, so forget those.
The height of the pan is really up to you. Some people like to cook their risotto in regular saucepans. I like to cook it in a pan that is neither too high, nor too low. A regular frying pan or paella pan is too shallow. I always use something that’s about 7.5cm/3″ high, give or take.
Non stick pan for risotto? Tradition dictates no, because you want to cook off the stock each time until the rice is practically sticking to the bottom of your pan. In my experience, you can still get that with non stick pans, so if non stick is your thing, go ahead and make your risotto in a non stick pan.
After all, I am here to encourage you to do it, not the other way around!
Tostatura, toasting of the rice and onions in fat
This is really important. First the onions are lightly fried in the chosen fat, then the rice follows suit. This is all done on a low or medium-low heat, as we don’t want to brown either. Browning the onions will ruin the flavour, while burning the rice will, apparently, stop the amylopectin from dissolving as well.
What fat to use when cooking risotto?
Good quality fat – butter or extra virgin olive oil, or even both. Always extra virgin olive oil. Yes, really.
Who started this stupid rumour that we shouldn’t cook with EV olive oil? Needs to be shot.
Ya don’t deep fry with EV olive oil, for obvious reasons (heating point and all), but cooking with it imparts a superior flavour to whatever dish you are making.
“Fat from the land is for the land, and never mixes with the sea (as in seafood)”
⇒ that means olive oil when doing a seafood risotto, and never cheese.
Having said all that, I know a couple of Michelin starred chefs, the Costardi brothers, who dry toast their rice before adding the wine, then stock. The butter, in their restaurant, Ristorante Christian e Manuel, is added to the risotto as a final step in the mantecatura.
Use a good quality stock for risotto
Again, this really ought to go without saying. In an ideal world, we would all be making our own stocks for everything we cook. However, I know that that’s probably asking too much. Just make sure to use good quality, shop bought stock. These days, that shouldn’t be hard to do at all. You can even find fresh stock in the fridge aisles of supermarkets, next to the raw meat.
We tend to have frozen homemade stock at home, but there are always some stockpots handy for when we run out, and because they are also very convenient. These are the ones I use.
One stockpot or stock cube is usually for 500ml (2 cups) of water. So for the recipe here, you will need 4 stock cubes or stockpots. If you are going to use cubes or stockpots, be sure to pick a good one, with no unnecessary ingredients.
As a general rule of thumb, use a stock that reflects the risotto. So chicken or vegetable stock for this risotto bianco, seafood stock for seafood risotto, and so on.
Mantecatura or Mantecare in English
If you’ve ever studied the art of risotto, you would have come across the word mantecare or mantecatura. It is derived from the Spanish word, manteca, which means butter, (nothing to do with the Italian cheese called manteca). Interestingly, the Malay word for butter is mentega.
Mantecare is the verb, and while many Italians will tell you that there is no direct translation for the word, it generally means to whip, beat it or stir vigorously, to create a smooth, creamy consistency (in the dish).
This whole process of whipping to reach the creamy stage is called mantecatura (noun). And it is the final step when cooking risotto, resulting in the wavy texture of a well made risotto, or all’onda.
You must, you must, you must, finish your risotto with the mantecatura, with some sort of fat, whether butter or olive oil. Cheese or no cheese, depends on your risotto.
Girariso for Risotto
Many people like to use a girariso for stirring risotto. The idea is that it’s doubling the stirring. You stir one way while the rice also goes through the hole in the other direction. Personally, I’m not convinced, even if I do send every student home with one of these spoons. Shh!
Can you cook risotto without stirring?
Remember what I said about different folks and different strokes?
Many (most?) chefs, Italian and otherwise, including all the ones I’ve worked with, will say absolutely not. You have to stir risotto to get the starch to play ball.
Chef Gabrielle Ferron of Ferron Rice tells you absolutely yes, you can cook risotto without stirring. This is how to do it, he says:
- add double the amount of hot stock to the rice volume, enough to cover the rice
- stir, cover and simmer for 15 minutes (12 minutes, in my experience)
- once the rice is cooked, around the 12-15 minute mark, take it off the heat and leave it to rest for 1 minute
- add butter or oil (and/or cheese), and stir like crazy, with a girariso, to release the starch
⇒ note that he doesn’t use wine, in fact, he advises against it. To-may-toes, to-mah-toes!
Does this work?
Yes, it does. BUT the final risotto is missing just that something in terms of texture. There is a definite difference between this no stirring method and the traditional stirring one.
The stirring of the rice with each addition of the stock, is what encourages the starch in the rice to dissolve.
When you leave the rice to cook in the stock with no or not much stirring, not all of the amylopectin is given a chance to dissolve and leach out. Result – not as creamy.
Want a compromise? Instead of a small ladle at a time, go for 1 cup at a time. So that’s 250ml of stock with each addition. You are cutting down on the effort, without too much of a loss in quality. But you must stir! That’s what encourages the starch to dance, remember?
Can you cook Risotto in a Pressure Cooker or Instant Pot?
I have a couple of good friends who do this all the time; one is an Italian in Italy, and the other is married to an Italian and lives here in the UK. The beauty of cooking risotto in a pressure cooker is that it takes only about 7-10 minutes, to the more traditional 20 minutes.
And there is no stirring involved. They both swear blind that the risotto is almost (almost!) as creamy, and just as good. For now, I shall have to take their word for it, which means you do too!
I am thinking of buying a pressure cooker in the next month or so, and will update, as soon as I can.
VERDICT: the pressure cooker makes an acceptable risotto. We have a rice cooker for rice, and it makes acceptable rice, not perfect. We use it 50% of the time, when I’m only cooking plain white rice. Anything fancy is done on the stove top, like Persian rice, biryanis and any Malay rice.
Will I keep making risotto in the pressure cooker? Probably not. We make risotto at least once a week, and the 15 minutes of attention really is no big deal.
How to Reheat Risotto
This is a question I get asked a lot!
- The first thing we need to remember is that we don’t want to keep it on the hob for too long as the rice will overcook and you’ll have rice porridge!
- If you have any stock left over, heat the stock up to boiling point. Otherwise, boil some water.
- Pour a ladle of the hot stock (or water) on your risotto, and stir, on medium-high heat to heat the risotto up. You should only need about a minute or two, slightly longer if your risotto’s just come out of the fridge.
- When completely heated through, take it off the hot hob and add some butter and parmesan, just a small amount will do, stir vigorously, and serve. That’s it!
Shall we get cooking our Basic Risotto or Risotto Bianco? The traditional way!
More Risotto Recipes on LinsFood
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Basic Risotto Recipe, Risotto Bianco (a Risotto Masterclass)
- 400 g carnaroli rice (or any risotto rice you can get)
- 1.5 litres chicken or vegetable stock
- 1 medium onion
- 2 Tbsp salted butter
- 2 Tbsp EV olive oil
- 125 ml dry white wine (skip if you don't do alcohol)
- salt if needed
- freshly ground black pepper
- 2 Tbsp cold, salted butter
- 60 g freshly grated parmesan cheese
- Place your stock, or water plus stockpots on high heat. Once it’s boiling, lower the heat down and leave it to simmer happily.
- While waiting for the stock, chop the onion up finely.
- Heat the butter and olive oil on low heat and sauté the onions for 3 minutes, stirring.
- Add the rice and coat with all that fat, stirring well. Toast the rice for 3 more minutes, until the edges turn translucent.
- Increase the heat to medium and pour in the wine, stir, and leave to evaporate, stirring a little. Skip this step, if you don’t do alcohol.
- Add 1 cup of the simmering stock and stir gently. You can take a break, it doesn’t need to be round and round constantly, just regular stirring while the stock evaporates.
- When the stock has evaporated, add half a cup more of the stock, stir, and repeat this process for 13 minutes. Yes, watch the clock or put your kitchen timer on.
- Check the rice at the 13-minute mark. It should be just about done, depending on your rice, and the heat. Is it cooked – soft on the outside with just a bite in the middle? Is the risotto looking creamy, like a thick version of rice pudding? If it is, it’s done. If it’s not, add 1/4 cup stock, and stir. When that stock has been absorbed, check again. You shouldn’t really need to cook more than 15-17 minutes.
- Then check the seasoning – does it need salt? Add some if you think it does, and stir it in.
- Take off the heat. Stir in the butter and the parmesan and stir it all in thoroughly and vigorously for a whole 30 seconds. The mantecatura, remember?
- Cover and leave to rest for 2 minutes, then serve up.