A History of Risotto: Rules for the Perfect Italian Rice Dish

As the sun started to set Veneto’s fields on fire with its first faint rays of sunrise, the line of women at the gates was already very long. Those who got there first would get the job for the day. The girls, whose dresses poorly reproduced flowers looking as withered as their sunburned faces, elbowed each other to get in front and secure a spot. The ones who got there late would have sworn that if there were a feeling more powerful than love, that was hunger. The workers would get their feet wet, their backs wrecked and their skin flaked. They would get their hands wrinkled, pricked and cramped. Their eyes sagged, their legs ached, their hearts burned. All they would get in return was a bag of rice they picked themselves as a paycheck for 12 hours of work.

The Mondine, the rice pickers, were not allowed to speak, to avoid distractions from working. But they could sing. As the rising sun set the sky ablaze, and dispelled the low layer of fog over the water in the rice fields between Verona, Venice and Vicenza into a cloud of gilded hues, hundreds of voices of women in pain rose in a chant. I am a Mondina, I am taken advantage of. They have killed and enchained me, But jail and violence could not stop me. Our bodies on the train tracks  Stopped our jailers. There is a lot of mud in the rice fields,  But we do not call ourselves dirty, as it is dirt that comes from work. We will fight for our jobs, For our bread, our peace and our freedom. We will create a better, more civil world. Risotto was brought to our tables with a fight. Risotto is a very opinionated dish. This clip from the movie ‘Bitter Rice’ (Riso Amaro) describes the scene above quite well. I am not sure if it is because of my Venetian ancestry, but I can say that risotto is my favorite italian dish along with pizza. In fact, it is probably one of my favorite dishes ever. Which is not surprising at all, as few things are as satisfying as a nice bowl of properly made risotto. it is just good, but like all good things it takes a bit of effort. It is not laborious, but it requires your undivided attention during the whole process, which means that you’ll have to commit some full 30 mins of your time to it (which s not that long, in the grand scheme of things). It’s a perfect dish for when you can take some time for cooking, or for a nice dinner at home with friends or a significant other. Here’s a guide to the main rules for making a basic risotto. These rules apply to all the risotto recipes you’ll come across. Now that our rice is not stained of blood anymore, let us take advantage of this beautiful product of the earth and make it shine on our tables!

8 RULES FOR PERFECT RISOTTO

#1 PICK THE RIGHT RICE QUALITY You can’t make risotto with just any rice. Truth is, in their own homes people do as they please (of course) and I personally like the half-a$$ed risotto I get with brown Italian rice. But, if you want to make things properly, these are the main varieties of risotto to have at hand:

Carnaroli – The main variety of rice used for most kinds of risotto. It has medium, plump, starchy grains, which blend wonderfully with every ingredient and produce a luscious creaminess.

Vialone Nano – This iconic quality of rice that is only cultivated in Veneto is the quintessential risotto rice. Its plump, round, extra-white grains are coated in a dense layer of starch and produce the thickest, richest risottos. It is key in preparing Pumpkin Risotto.

Arborio – With its slightly longer, slightly more transparent grains, this variety of rice is not as good as the previous two, but it is still a great choice for risotto. It is a great fit for risottos that tend to remain on the soupy side. Amongst other Italian rice varieties, you might hear about Roma, Originario, Baldo…Though some can produce good risottos, these other varieties are best left for other preparations. Whatever your choice, do NOT, by any means, rinse your rice. If you dip a finger into a box of rice for risotto, it should come out white with starch.

How to make Risotto and Saffron Risotto - Vialone Nano

Vialone Nano Variety. The grains are plump and white with starch.

#2 PICK THE RIGHT PAN In an ideal world, the pot or pan used for risotto should be about 3″ tall and quite large. Possibly aluminum or stainless steel (purists are all about copper casseroles, but let’s be real).It would be best to avoid nonstick pots. Alternatively, a tall-ish pot also does the job wonderfully – especially if you’re not cooking large amounts of risotto. This and this are good examples. The reason why a slanted pan will not work is that it will probably not grant uniform cooking, and the reason why non-stick will not work is that the rice won’t toast properly. Risotto experts say that you should be prepared to scrape bits of risotto off your pan once you’re done…but this is not necessarily true.

#3 EACH RECIPE HAS ITS BASE Risotto needs for key ingredients, which need to be changed according to the recipe: the right wine, the right stock, the right soffritto, and the right fat.

The fat – some sort of fat is used both to start the risotto in the initial stir fry, and for finishing it (see ‘mantecatura’ below). This can be olive oil, butter or both. If you are going to pick an oil that is not olive or that is subpar, just go with butter. Risotto stir-fry needs to cook at a very low temperature, so the olive oil won’t be ruined by the heat. I’d go with olive oil when making fish risottos, but you can pick you favorite fat with no specific rules. If you can, use extra virgin olive oil. Yes, really. DO NOT use shortening or margarine. Just DO NOT. I will come to your place and slap your hands with a leather belt if you do.

The soffritto – ‘soffritto’ is, technically, a very light stir-fry of very finely minced onion, carrot and celery – similar to french mirepoix. For risotto, the best choice is white onion alone, or, even better, shallots. you will probably never use a soffritto made with carrot and celery for risotto, because it could be overpowering. Go with all shallots for fish risotto, a mixture of onion and shallot for vegetable risotto, and all onion for risottos containing meats or strong flavors like porcini. Whatever you pick, mince it as finely as you can.

The stock – Use fish stock for fish risottos, meat stock for risottos with meats or strong flavors like porcini. Vegetable stock works well for pretty much everything. Just make sure the stock is ready and hot before you start preparing the risotto.

The wine – Dry white wine is the way to go for risotto. While it totally doesn’t need to be premium quality, it shouldn’t be wine from a carton, either. Last time I made risotto in New York I found these really good bottles of wine from Veneto at 3$ each, which is a great price considering that you can drink the rest and/or use it for more cooking.

#4 TOAST IT! The rice should be toasted before adding the liquid. You are not just gonna throw all the ingredients in the pot and let it cook.

#5 NEVER OVERMIX While risotto needs to be constantly tended, it shouldn’t be overworked. There’s no need to keep stirring or stirring it too often, or it won’t absorb the liquid properly.Furthermore, stirring too much will break the grains and might cause the starch to turn gluey. This is why some people might even prefer to let the rice stick to the bottom of the pan rather than stirring it (I wouldn’t, though).

#6 BE PATIENT AND LOVE IT Risotto is not a kind of preparation that can be left unattended. It will require some 20 minutes of undivided attention. Stock must be added one ladleful at a time, and you should eye the amount you add especially towards the end, to reach the perfect creaminess without overcooking it.

#7 NEVER SKIP THE ‘MANTECATURA’ ‘Mantecare’ is an Italian word that has no direct translation. It is the process of adding fat at the end of a preparation (off-fire) to make it creamier and finish it off with the right touch. Mantecatura applies mostly to risotto, pastas and thick soups Classic risottos are finished off with butter and Parmigiano, but this is not always the case. For fish risottos, it is preferred to finish with olive oil and butter, or olive oil alone (which is also the case for vegan risottos). You can also finish it off with any cheese of choice that goes well with the recipe.

#8 ‘L’ONDA’ Risotto, when served, should be ‘all’onda’ which roughly means that it should ‘create a wave’. This means that it shouldn’t be too loose or too thick, but I’d say that you should adjust it to your own liking. If it is too thick, add a little stock at the end, but always be careful to not overcook it. Risotto connoisseurs even pour it on the dish straight from the pan! And now, on to the recipe!

How to make risotto: a guide for the perfect italian dish

 

Basic Risotto – Saffron Risotto
(Serves 4)

320g Italian Rice (Carnaroli or Vialone Nano)

40g Butter, or 2 tbsps Olive oil
A small onion, or half a medium one
1/4 cup dry white wine
About 4 cups flavorful stock
Parmigiano, or good quality cheese, grated
Salt
Variation for SAFFRON RISOTTO: 1 g powdered saffron (one bag)

1. Make sure your stock is hot and at the ready.

2. Start by mincing the onion very finely. Add it to the pan with your fat of choice, and very lightly stir fry on low until the onion is translucent, about 3-5 minutes. The onion should be ‘stewed’ rather than fried, so if it colors too quickly add a bit of stock. NOTE: If adding other vegetables to risotto, add them now. Or, you can half-cook the vegetables in a separate pan with more onion stir fry and add them to the rice after you it has been toasted and before adding the wine.

3. Add the rice, and mix if with the onion to toast it for a couple minutes. The grains should turn translucent and well coated with the base of oil, stock and onion. Add the wine, and stir well. Let the wine fully reduce.

4. At this point, start adding a couple ladlefuls of stock, along with a pinch of salt. Stir everything well and scrape the grains that might stick to the sides of the pan, and let the stock absorb. Occasionally shake the pan, as to mix the rice without really stirring it with the spoon. Keep the flame low, it should simmer very gently.

5. Once the stock is absorbed, the risotto will have already turned quite creamy. Add another ladleful, stir well and let it absorb. Make sure that by the end of cooking time the stock will be fully absorbed, so just eye the amount of liquid to reach the right consistency. Taste the rice 2-3 minuted before the time indicated in the box, and add more salt or liquid to finish cooking.

6. Turn off the fire a couple of minutes before the risotto is fully cooked. Finish it off with a good amount of grated Parmigiano, Grana or other well seasoned cheese, according to your taste. Make sure to adjust the salt according to the cheese, as well. Finish it off with a tad more butter or olive oil, and stir it well. If making saffron risotto, melt the powder in a bit of hot stock and dissolve it, then add it at the very end. Saffron is a very delicate spice and could not withstand long cooking or excessively high temperatures.

Some people even serve risotto by pouring it from the pan, as it should be ‘all’onda’, as said above. However you decide to dish it, do not let it sit for too long, as it will continue to cook and get a bit clumpier. Like every italian person and every regular person as well, I actually love risotto even better the day after. Risotto is one of those dishes that develop a ton of flavor while sitting overnight in the fridge, and there is just something about the consistency of cold risotto that is like a charm to me. I love eating it with a fork, and I love how it glues together the day after. The leftovers can be transformed in countless ways, the most famous being Arancini di Riso (which I have no idea why americans eat with tomato sauce). They can also be turned into the all-Roman Suppli al Telefono. You can stuff vegetables with it (just pack rice in them AND add some Romagna breadcrumb mixture on top – works even better with tomatoes), you can turn it into a frittata, or you can turn it into a baked casserole of sorts.

What is your favorite risotto? Did you ever come across an exceptionally good or exceptionally bad risotto? Do you like it looser or thicker? Let me know!

How to make Risotto and Saffron Risotto - Vialone Nano

A bowl of artichoke risotto

  1. The best risotto I’ve ever had was at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant in NY. It was asparagus. I still think about it and it’s been years.

    Thanks for the tips, I’m going to try them out!

    • Gordon Ramsay is the man. I love watching his shows and he cooks many italian things better than Italians themselves…I absolutely want to go to one of his restaurants once in my life!

  2. I find risotto extremely hard to photograph, mainly because I do it too in a hurry as I want to eat it straight away! Warmed up risotto is neither photogenic nor tasty. Your rules are spot on (this Venetian couldn’t agree more). My favourite rice remains Vialone Nano Del Delta, and my favourite risotto has to be with radicchio tardivo, or with zucca – a bit of a wait for the right season, but always so worth it!

    • Ahah, if you notice, there’s only that silly picture of artichoke risotto from afar in this post – exactly because of the reasons you mentioned! I’m such an amateur.

      A friend invited me and more friends over for dinner a couple nights ago and that’s exactly what he made – Risotto with radicchio and risotto with pumpkin. Risotto alla zucca is SO one of the best things I’ve ever eaten <3
      So happy this post is Venetian-approved! :D

    • Buahaha :)) it’s just too hard to resist the smell of good risotto, isn’t it? Let’s create a seal, a stamp or something: Venetian-approved! Oh aren’t we silly. xx

  3. This is AMAZING. I’ve been putting off trying risotto for years (my people have an unshakable dependency on rice cookers to make our rice, what can I say?!) and you might finally have given me the courage. I’m also fascinated by that carnaroli rice — I don’t think I’ve ever cooked with such a short grain before. This is wonderful, Valentina — thank you!

    • Aaaaaw thanks Cynthia! <3
      Do try it! You're also in luck you live in a place where good rice is easy to source. They even sell Vialone Nano at Fairway's! Of course, you can find it at Eataly, too. It'll be a bit overpriced, but it's authentic.

      And I love asian rice too. I am just madly in love with rice in general. I like it much more than pasta. I'm such a bad Italian!

  4. number 7 is my favorite! is that the same thing as when people drizzle olive oil on their pizza after it comes out of the oven??

  5. Nice! I make risotto quite often, but I’ve never even heard of Vialone Nano. I’ve never quite understood people’s terror of making risotto: at the very worst, if you screw it up, you’ve wasted 20 minutes and a cup of rice. As my Mom used to say, “If that’s the worst thing that happens to you today….”

    Thanks much for this. I’ll keep these tips in mind next time I make a batch!

    • You know, I think many Italians that do not live in the north might never have heard of it…some supermarkets do not even stock it! So you’re fully justified :)
      Even if you screw it ub, you’ll probably still end up with a pretty flavorful bowl of something. It’s rice+onion+fat after all <3

    • Exactly! I found some vialone on Amazon (bless the internet!) so I will test it out. My husband thanks you – risotto is his favorite. :)

  6. Your photographs are absolutely stunning.

    My husband is from Vercelli, where they filmed Riso Amaro! :) Our favorite risotto recipe is for a lemon risotto from the American version of La Cucina Italiana…it’s a strange recipe in that it doesn’t call for wine, but you add a bit of vinegar at the end. The best risotto I’ve ever had, though, was the panissa my husband’s aunt & uncle made for us earlier this spring, with beans from Saluggia. (Best risotto tip we ever got from Zio Luigi: never stir the rice! Just gently push it around the pan, and not too often. Apparently it releases more starch this way.)

    My brother-in-law brought us 9 kilos of Baldo from Vercelli when he came to visit us 2 years ago, so that’s what we always make risotto with — in spite of giving some away every time we meet new people, there always seems to be a kilo hiding in the back of a cabinet. If we ever manage to use it all up, I’m eager to try the Vialone Nano!

    • Oh! Your husband probably knows a thing or two about risotto then! And speaking of Panissa, rice+beans is always a good idea. I have a recipe for that planned too (except it can’t be Panissa, as I hate salame…)
      But this lemon risotto really, really interests me. I wasn’t a fan of prominent citrus flavors, but I kinda changed my mind since trying a lemon artichoke pizza in NY once. I absolutely want to try it!

      Ahaha don’t you love how cost effective rice is?! Especially when it’s a gift!

    • You might try Paniscia Novarese, which is made with pancetta instead of salame. Good salami is very difficult to find here in Kansas where we live, so I’ve thought about making panissa with a ham hock, which is very common to use here to flavor a pot of beans.

      I tried to find a link to the risotto al limone recipe online, but it seems the US edition of La Cucina Italiana has gone out of print, and they’ve shuttered their website! It’s a very basic risotto, made with vegetable broth, but with no soffritto. At the end, you stir in parmigiano, butter, a little bit of lemon juice, and a little bit of white wine vinegar.

      I do love that, whenever it seems like we have no food in the house, we almost always have the things on hand to make a good risotto. (Fun fact: rice is still used as currency where my husband’s parents live, out in the rice fields near Vercelli…mia suocera takes care of elderly people, and sometimes they actually pay her with bags of rice!)

    • And that is why risotto is a perfect excuse for a date night at home where you know you’ll be able to down the whole bottle and get things going!

  7. I love this post. Cooking risotto really is an art form. What is your favourite type of rice? Arborio? And do you have a preferred brand? I most often use Gallo, but I’m never sure how much of a difference there is in the quality of the brands… Or how much it affects the flavour…
    PS As ever – such beautiful photos!

    • It’s all written in the post! :) My favorite is Vialone Nano, but Carnaroli is close. Gallo is actually one of the most common rice brands in Italian supermarkets and most home cooks will probably go for that, but we can do better.
      Acquerello, Aironi and Falasco are excellent rice brands (but Acquerello is really, really overpriced in the US). I see you’re in the UK though, sorry i have no recommendations as to where to find these brands :/

      The quality of the rice is paramount. It’s not really about the flavor, but the consistency will change dramatically. Low quality rice is gluey and overcooks very easily. Gallo is a very good choice if you can’t find anything else, so no worries! :)

  8. We love risotto and make it quite often. I’ve made it with lemon, dill, pesto, sun dried tomatoes, asparagus, etc. The list is endless. One of the best bowls of risotto I have ever had was at an Osteria in Lavertezzo (Ticino): red wine risotto topped with a melting local goat cheese. Absolutely delicious!

  9. What a post, Valentina! Simply gorgeous. Risotto definitely is one of my no. 1 comfort foods. I find the process of making risotto a very calming one, almost meditative. I vary the type of risotto I make in my kitchen according to the seasons. Right now, my favorite one to make is asparagus with a hint of lemon. In fall risotto is all about mushrooms (crazy mushroom lady over here) whereby I prefer dried mushrooms as their flavor is more intense. In late fall and winter I find comfort in making pumpkin risotto and sometimes finishing it off with a dollop of mascarbone. I’m not sure if this is really Italian approved but I mostly prefer to use chicken broth instead of vegetable broth as I find it more flavorsome. Furthermore, my soffritto typically consists of onions or shallots, garlic, and, bad me, celery or fennel. Please don’t spank me.

    • Yeeeeaaaah Sini, mushroom risotto is the best <3 but pumpkin risotto with mascarpone is like the epitome of food luxury. That's GENIUS.

      Actually for all risottos meat stock is recommended, unless you're making something with fish. And fennel and celery work for you probably because they're flavors you're used to as a person from way up north. Italians just wouldn't like them. I'm not gonna spank anybody, as long as people find pleasure in cooking and eating and don't use fake crap, I'm happy!

      (If you use fake parmesan, though, I am gonna come and slap your hands with a celery stick. ;) )

    • Just a note, one year I made wild mushroom risotto with mascarpone and truffles and it won the hearts of meat-eaters overs over the flank steak handily. Using veggie broth of course, but I think you know what I mean. No spanking necessary!!!

  10. Ey, is mantecatura analogous to the French “monter au beurre”? The only question is, who wore it better amirite? Sorry, I’ve been drinking. Awesome post though, you absolutely nailed the opening narrative.

    • Thanks Josh, I appreciate that – even if it’s a drunken comment xD

      But no, mantecare is not like monter au beurre. Never mention french stuff to Italian people or vice-versa, ahaha! (though I love french stuff.)

    • I’m still bitter about the 2006 World Cup finals. Marco Materazzi is the biggest douche in the world, and he deserved everything that Zidane did to him and more. But yeah dude, risotto looks bomb :)

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  12. hello im from malaysia and i study in culinary of arts. For me risotto is the food that people can`t let it go, its so creamy and delicious. i can`t wait to taste and make my one risotto ;)

  13. Thank you for this post!! Risotto is my favorite, and I always found it hard to find good tips on making risotto. My parents are from Italy and they never ever make risotto, so I’ve been trying to perfect it myself. I will be going to Venice for the first time this week, any restaurant recommendations for a good risotto?

    Love your Blog!
    Vanessa

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