A few weeks ago I published my favorite recipe for lemon risotto but a friend soon told me she had tried the recipe and it hadn't worked for her. I was troubled to think I had led anyone to try a dish and have it fail. Plus I had made this recipe at least a dozen times, each time with complete and happy success. What went wrong?
Talking with her further, my friend said she had always found risotto a challenge and hadn't made it or eaten it often. Could I help her learn its technique and what makes a good one?
Like ballet dancers who are passing along choreography memorized in their legs from learning it directly from the late, great George Balanchine, I feel a certain moral obligation to teach other home cooks how to make risotto. That's because I had the extraordinary experience of learning how to make this classic rice dish in a one-on-one risotto lesson with Marcella Hazan.
About 15 years ago, at a time when Ms. Hazan still lived in Venice and hadn't yet moved to Florida where she now makes her home, she was in New York to promote one of her cookbooks. As part of her tour she held two small master classes for home cooks and I was one of the lucky 15 or so who miraculously managed to get a ticket. The class was held at the French Culinary Institute, in one of their professional kitchen classrooms, and we cooked together for about 4 hours. Our menu included roasted eggplant with peppers and cucumbers, halibut with squid sauce, an Italian style carrot cake -- and risotto with zucchini and littleneck clams.
The biggest thrill of the class was to assemble, stir and finish my pan of risotto with Ms. Hazan standing at my elbow, telling me when to add more hot stock, when to keep stirring, and when to say "basta." That night and that lesson was seared into my memory and every time I have since made risotto, her kind and firm wisdom plays loudly in my head.
Making risotto is all technique. You have to know what you're going for; otherwise you can't get a perfect result. But I've learned my lessons and here is what I know for sure about making successful and triumphant risotto.
- Use only an Italian short-grained rice. These include Arborio, Vialone Nano or Carnaroli.
- There is no cream in risotto. The creaminess comes from the combination of the starch from the short-grained rice, plus the fat (usually olive oil) and, in some recipes, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. But most of it comes from the rice itself. This is why risotto makers are so strict about the type of rice that's used.
- If you insist on adding cream to risotto you'll get a creamy texture, but you'll also end up with the cream just coating the grains of rice, overtaking the starchy and delicately fat-slicked finish. The cream will also compete with whatever ingredients you've added to the risotto, whether it's vegetables, meat, or cheese, and changes the flavor.
- While Italian cooks argue about this, many will agree that a bit of butter added at the end is fine.
- The liquid added to the risotto -- usually stock but sometimes simply water -- must be hot. Not boiling, but hot. This way, when you add the liquid to the rice, you won't lower its cooking temperature.
- Add the hot liquid a cup at a time. I use a soup ladle so I know I'm adding about the same quantity each time. Being consistent about the amount of liquid helps pace the cooking.
- If you add ingredients early to the risotto, their flavors meld and become more subtle in the final dish. If you add ingredients toward the end of the cooking, the flavors are more pronounced. For example, in an asparagus risotto, adding pieces of asparagus toward the start will result in a pale green dish with a subtle asparagus flavor; adding asparagus tips or pieces toward the end of the dish will let the vegetable remain intact and thus, lend a stronger asparagus taste to the finished dish. Same thing for our recipe for Lemon Risotto: if you add the lemon rind early in the cooking, as our recipe suggests, you get a more subtle lemon flavor; add it toward the end and you'll instead get a more forward lemon taste.
- You will get a better result if you cook the risotto is a sauté pan, not a sauce pot and not in a skillet or fry pan which has slanted sides. You're best with a pan with about a 2-to-3-inch depth and straight sides; this makes it easy to have the liquid contained with the rice sitting in it. A sauce pan is too deep and doesn't have as much open surface as a sauté pan. This matters because the expanse of the exposed surface can make a difference in how quickly the liquid absorbs and evaporates.
- If you finish adding your hot stock and the rice still needs more liquid to become tender, add hot water. This may happen because of the age of the rice, making it a bit dried out and thus needing a touch more liquid. But resist adding more stock as this can change the flavor. Since I can't be sure how much total liquid I will need, I often keep two saucepans ready, one with all my hot stock and another with standby of simmering water.
- If you make a seafood risotto, you never add cheese at any point in the recipe.
1. Heat the fat so that it is hot but not smoking. The fat is usually olive oil but sometimes a combination of olive oil and unsalted butter. In a few recipes, you'll start by rendering fat from small pieces of pancetta and you'll use the pork fat in place of, or with, olive oil. But the fat must be hot.
2. Many risotto recipes call for starting with finely diced onion or shallots before adding the rice. If you do this, cook the onion until soft and translucent but don't brown it as it will change its flavor and also change the final appearance of the risotto.
3. Add the rice and stir the rice in the hot fat to help seal the surface of the grains of rice.
4. Add a small amount of something acidic. This is in the form of a cup or so of wine, usually white wine, but depending on the recipe, it can also be red wine. The wine will cook off very rapidly and from this point forward, you'll add the hot stock.
5. This is the point at which many recipes call for the addition of other ingredients. Each recipe will vary. For example, if you're making a seafood risotto, you may be using a fish or shrimp stock and adding calamari or shrimp. If you add any ingredients at this point, you should expect them to cook and in some cases, break into smaller pieces as a result of being combined with the rice and going through all the stirring and additions of stock.
In other recipes, you'll add ingredients shortly before the rice finishes cooking and they won't get as much heat or stirring. This is why you'll sometimes see, for example, a mushroom risotto recipe in which you'll add some sliced and sautéed mushrooms at the start and then some later, at the end, producing a full mushroom flavor as well as fully intact mushroom slices in the finished dish.
6. Hot liquid, usually stock or broth, is always added gradually to the rice. This process is essential because the short-grained and starchy rice used in risotto are resistant to absorbing liquid and can only do so gradually. If you tried to boil or steam Arborio, Vialone Nano or Carnaroli rice as you would a long grained or jasmine rice, it would cook very poorly, staying hard and uncooked and surrounded by excess liquid. You must add a little liquid at a time, stirring over heat until it is absorbed, and then gradually add more. This method continues until the grains have absorbed enough liquid to be tender to the tooth and the starches are released.
7. Adding the hot liquid is done gradually, over a high heat, with continuous and constant stirring. It is finished cooking when the rice is tender but there is still a bit of unabsorbed liquid in the pan, adding to the soft finish.
8. The final texture should be one in which the grains are still firm but tender to the tooth (as with pasta: al dente) but are in an almost soupy surround, soft, loose, with the grains of rice a bit loose in the creamy environment that's been created from the combination of the starchy rice, olive oil, hot meat stock and melted cheese.
9. Serve it immediately. IMMEDIATELY.
Here is the most important lesson I learned from Ms. Hazan: Use a high heat and don't be afraid. Add a cup of hot stock and keep stirring until you think the rice is just about to scorch and only then do you add more hot liquid. As you continue to stir, you'll start to see the bare bottom of the pan. This is when you add more liquid and not before. She explained that the high heat helps in the absorption and you get a more tender, flavorful risotto. Whenever I make risotto, as I stir, I remember her standing next to me, and saying, "not yet, not yet, keep stirring, no basta, not yet. Okay, now. Basta."
Another fact of risotto: you simply cannot make it in advance and expect the texture to be good. If you make it in advance, it may still taste good and be a very nice rice dish, but you cannot get that unique, creamy, soupy result if a risotto sits for more than 2 or 3 minutes before it's eaten.
My final piece of advice is to know what you're aiming for. If you've never had a great risotto, it will be hard to make one yourself. That's because only your palate will know when it's done and when it's right. So ask a skilled risotto-making friend to invite you over for dinner or order the dish the next time you're in a very good Italian restaurant. Pay attention to the texture and the finish and then you'll be like those Balanchine dancers, with the memory of perfection in your palate. After that, you'll be a master and Marcella will be proud.