Learn exactly how long to leave your risotto to rest. Why you should soak and strain your onions. As well as a top tip for when dining in Italian resteraunts! Italian chef Valentina Harris takes us through all the stages of making a risotto alla milanese from tritto and sofritto to the sigh when the stock is added.
This article was written by Valentina Harris for Sous Chef UK
Risotto was the first thing I was taught to make properly.
When my parents moved into our lovely old house in Tuscany in 1947 there was a group of displaced Italian soldiers living amongst the bombed-out wreckage. My father, in “an Englishman’s home is his castle” mode, chased them all away. All, that is, except one very special man called Beppino, who was allowed to stay.
Gradually, over the years, he repaired the house; created our vast vegetable garden; pruned the fruit trees, vines and olive grove and established an area for the hens, rabbits and pigs to supply us with fresh and cured meat. He worked hard, always with inimitable Venetian humour and tireless dedication to our family.
Most of all, he cooked better than anybody I have ever known, and he taught me to appreciate and love food.
Before the war, Beppino had been the official Risotto chef at the legendary Savini restaurant in the Galleria in Milan, and it was Risotto he taught me when I was only 5 or 6.
I would stand by his side at the stove on a kitchen chair, stirring and stirring, drawing in the aroma of the stock as it bubbled gently into the grains, listening carefully to his instructions as this remarkable, decadently delicious dish came together.
To this day I can’t make a Risotto without hearing his voice in my ear.
As a chef and a passionate lover of all things authentically Italian when it comes to food, I have passed on his skills and have made his way of making Risotto my own. It remains one of my absolutely favourite things to cook and, several award winning books on the subject and many, many cooking classes and demonstrations later; I am going to share with you some valuable secrets to create this quintessential dish from the north of Italy.
Italian regional variations of risotto
When I was a little girl, there were so many more different risotto rice varieties compared to those available now. Our family owned rice fields that yielded just enough rice for all branches of the family to receive one 50 kg sack per household just after the September harvest.
I have no idea what the rice variety contained in that hessian sack was, but I do remember very clearly the hours spent sorting through the contents; turfing out tiny pebbles, chaff, and other impurities until the rice was all clean and ready to use.
The thing that most people seem to fear when it comes to making Risotto is, quite simply, its texture.“ It tastes great” they tell me, “but I just can’t get the consistency right”.
Well here’s the thing: there is no exact, unswerving texture that is considered “correct”. The rice must neither be overcooked or crunchy, but the overall texture of the Risotto itself varies enormously, not just from one region of Italy to another, but also depending on the type of rice used as well as the recipe itself.
Broadly speaking, Risotto belongs to Northern Italy, specifically to the regions of Lombardia, Piemonte and the Veneto, although tiny pockets of production do exist in Toscana and Sardegna.
To the northwest, in Lombardia and Piemonte, the rice fields are fed by the marshlands of the river Po Valley and snowmelt from the Alps, whilst to the northeast it is the watery Po Delta and Dolomite snowmelt that create the perfect growing conditions for the grain.
These very specific differences in terroir, climate and geography mean that different varieties of rice thrive better in the west compared to others in the east, and these different varieties of rice provide very diverse results when it comes to cooking.
Generally speaking, the plump-grained rice varieties of the west: principally Arborio and Carnaroli; make for more solid, thicker Risotto than the soupier recipes of the east, where rice varieties such as Vialone Nano, with smaller, harder grains, are traditionally used.
Take for example, the great Risotto dish of Venice herself: Risi e Bisi (which simply means Rice and Peas) - so runny it is eaten with a spoon and not, as is traditional otherwise, with a fork.
In the west, Risotto must be soft enough to slump on to the plate when served (always a soup plate with a rim, never a bowl or flat plate!) and visibly collapse and spread – it should definitely move, though never be soup-like. But always, the Risotto must be silky and sensual.
Getting the texture spot on is, quite frankly, something you can only really learn with some practice but you will be enormously helped by using the best quality rice you can find!
Good quality Carnaroli, like Aquerello, is the easiest kind of rice to cook well because it “holds” better than any of the other varieties – it is much less likely to overcook and slip your Risotto into the realm of rice pudding.
What is usually in risotto?The answer to that is: anything! Having said that, all Risotto needs the following:
- The best rice of the right variety (preferably Carnaroli!),
- A member of the allium family i.e. onion, shallot, leek or in very rare cases: garlic;
- And traditionally butter (because if you define an area or a country by its cooking fat, then the north of Italy has never been traditionally the area for Extra Virgin Olive oil in any large quantity – it is either butter or pork fat that reign supreme).
And as long as the Risotto does NOT contain fish or seafood of any kind, you can also add grated Parmesan.
A Risotto made simply with onion, chicken or rich vegetable stock, rice and Parmesan is called Risotto alla Parmigiana, and if made well, it can be one of the best!
But apart from this essential list of ingredients, you can add any kind of vegetable, meat, game, fish, herbs, seafood, crustaceans, wine, cheese and even fruit, as follows:
- If the added ingredient is something that takes a long time to cook (e.g. meat) then you will need to cook it first and either add the rice to the cooked ingredient or vice versa, depending on the recipe.
- If the added ingredient has a shorter cooking time, it can be added to the Risotto during the cooking time – bearing in mind that the rice itself needs 20 minutes of cooking time. So asparagus of chopped courgettes, or peas, for example, can be added about 10 minutes from the end of the overall cooking time.
- If the added ingredient requires no cooking – such as finely chopped herbs or Gorgonzola – then it can be mixed in at the very end.
Which rice is best for risotto?Rice basically breaks down into these main categories:
- Patna, Basmati and other long grain varieties suitable for boiling or for cooking in the oven pilaff style.
- Sticky rices - like Japanese Sushi rice.
- Starchy, chalky rices like Carnaroli, Arborio, Vialone Nano, Roma, Baldo etc.
Carnaroli is the absolute unparalleled king of all these, and at the other end of the spectrum, plain old pudding rice is the pauper - it is known as Originario in Italy, (the original), and if really nothing else is available you would be far better making Risotto with pudding rice than Basmati or Sushi Rice, as at least you will get some level of “Velluto” – but beware the danger of overcooking!
What do you serve with risotto?
Apart from the tradition of serving Risotto (either Alla Milanese with saffron or Alla Parmigiana with nothing but good stock, butter and Parmesan) alongside a serving of rich Ossobuco Stew, Risotto is always a first course, a Primo - traditionally served after or instead of antipasti or on its own as a single dish followed by a simple salad but it is never served as a side with a main course dish.
How to make risotto
What equipment do you need to make risotto?
It seems like the most obvious thing to say, but the single most essential ingredient you are going to need is the right kind of rice – preferably Carnaroli - for the best possible results!
To explain the cooking principle of Risotto in simple terms: each rice grain has an inner core and an outer sheath – approximately as a 50/50 split.
During the cooking, the outer sheath falls away and mixes with the stock and (if using) wine, to create the smooth, soothing, sexy mouth-feel called “Il Velluto” - the velvet - whilst the inner core absorbs up to 5 times its own volume in liquid and flavour whilst not disintegrating and provides bite.
In the case of Carnaroli, that inner core is good and strong, much more so than in the case of Arborio, which notoriously overcooks quickly if not carefully watched.
- You will also need really good, flavoursome stock. Whilst this does not necessarily need to be home made it does need to be full of flavour and not packed with salt or MSG. The rice will never lie, it will absorb whatever flavour you are adding to the dish, so make sure that whatever you are adding already tastes good on its own.
- You will need a deep, heavy bottomed, preferably 2 handled pot with a tight fitting lid to cook the Risotto in – this allows you to keep pace with the cooking much better and depth means you won’t evaporate too much of the liquid instead of forcing the rice to absorb it. The lid is essential for resting the risotto at the end.
Top tips for making perfect risotto
- Don’t try to make Risotto in huge quantities or the rice will simply not cook evenly and even just a few gritty uncooked grains could ruin your lovely, sensual dish. In the vast majority of domestic scenarios, cooking any more than 600 g of rice for Risotto in a large pot will just spell disappointment.
- Don’t be in a rush over Risotto; it is a dish that requires a certain degree of commitment, so if you are not in the mood just make something else.
Traditional Italian risotto recipe - in six steps
- Chop the onion, or whichever member of the allium family you are choosing to use for your recipe as finely as possible – this means to the same size or smaller than a raw rice grain so that it melts into the background of the dish but is not present as texture – this is Il Trito.
- Il Soffritto refers to a cooking process and the elements can be onion and butter, or garlic, chilli and oil, or celery, carrot and onion in oil or butter but it is always a cooking process rather than an ingredient. In the case of Risotto, you gently make a soffritto at the beginning with the onion (or other allium) and traditionally butter, but the onion must absolutely NOT brown and must just melt into the butter. Use a deep, heavy bottomed pan with a tight filling lid.
- When the onion is completely soft but never browned (if it is you have to throw the whole lot away and begin again), add all the rice in one go – usually about 80 g per person. Stir and toast the grains without browning, allowing the heat from the pan to permeate each and every grain so as to seal the aforementioned inner core and prevent the whole thing from overcooking. This part of the process is called La Tentazione, The Temptation, and is the single most important part of the entire cooking process for a perfect Risotto and it must not be rushed. It is called La Tentazione because the rice is desperate for you to add that first rush of liquid; it tempts you but you remain patient and play hard to get, bringing the rice to the very edge of exploding with heat and desire before finally flushing it with either wine or stock, depending on the recipe.
- At this point, you should achieve Il Sospiro, The Sigh, which is the rice signalling its relief with an audible hiss that sounds like a sigh and a burst of visible steam, whilst at the same time the rice in the pot, now submerged with liquid, is bubbling maniacally and joyfully. If this doesn’t happen, you probably peaked too early.
- Lower the heat and continue the cooking process, La Cottura, only adding more liquid (about 2 ladlefuls at a time) each time the rice asks for it – this is when the wooden spoon you are using to stir the Risotto opens up a clear wake behind itself as you draw it through the rice. Don’t hurry and don’t get distracted!
- Once cooked – i.e. soft but still with some bite, remove the pot from the heat and add (if appropriate to the recipe) the Parmesan or other cheese and the remaining butter. Stir until the butter melts and then cover tightly. This part of the process is called La Mantecatura and it basically means to make the rice creamier. Leave to stand for 4 minutes, covered. Uncover, stir once more with vigour to incorporate air into the Risotto, and then transfer to a serving dish or into individual soup plates to serve.
Risotto alla milanese - Milanese saffron risotto recipe
The traditional recipe for this much loved golden Risotto includes beef bone marrow, but you can leave it out and use extra butter instead. Similarly, I have left in the cooking instruction involving soaking the onion and squeezing it dry in a napkin (the purpose being to reduce the intensity of the onion’s flavour) because I find it so charming and old fashioned, but you can leave this out if you prefer!
Ingredients for Risotto alla milanese
- ½ medium sized onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 100 g unsalted butter
- 40 g raw beef bone marrow, chopped
- 500 g Aquerello rice
- 1.5 litres rich stock (traditionally made with veal, beef and chicken; assorted vegetables but absolutely no tomato), kept simmering
- 1 sachet of saffron powder or pinch of saffron fronds, if using the latter they can be soaked in1/2 ladleful of hot stock for about 20 minutes before adding to the Risotto with the liquid
- 50 g freshly grated Parmesan
How to make Risotto alla milanese
- Soak the onion in cold water for about 10 minutes, then drain and squeeze dry in a napkin.
- Then fry the onion very slowly in half the butter with the beef marrow and when the onion is soft but not browned, add all the rice.
- Stir and coat the grains thoroughly until the rice grains are crackling hot but not coloured. Begin to add the hot stock (about 2 ladlefuls at a time), stirring constantly and allowing the liquid to be absorbed before adding more.
- Continue to cook the rice in this way; making sure that the rice always absorbs the stock before you add more liquid. About half way through cooking time (approximately ten minutes) add the saffron powder or soaked saffron fronds and their liquid and stir through thoroughly.
- When the Risotto is creamy and velvety, but the rice grains are still just firm to the bite, take it off the heat.
- Stir in the rest of the butter and the cheese. Cover and rest for four minutes, then stir again and transfer on to a warmed platter. Serve at once, with the Ossobuco arranged on top, offering extra grated Parmesan at the table.
How do you eat risotto?
To be really traditional, Risotto is always served in a rimmed soup plate, eaten with a fork and in a clockwise direction. You can use the back of the fork tines to flatten the Risotto out a little and help it cool, but do not traverse the plate until you have eaten the Risotto all the way around and you are left with a little pile in the centre.
At this point, it is perfectly permissible to use a little piece of bread in your other hand to help you pick up the remaining rice, but never use a spoon or knife to help you!
Valentina Harris is a passionate Italian cook and award-winning author with more than 30 books to her name, including The Italian Regional Cookbook; Risotto! Risotto!; Classic Recipes of Tuscany; 500 Italian Recipes, and Valentina Harris’s Complete Italian Cookery Course. Educated in Italy, Valentina brought her qualifications for teaching and cooking from Rome to London in 1976. As a regular face at food festivals in the UK, Valentina stills finds time to share her expertise and love of Italian food by hosting courses, plus can be found regularly contributing to radio, TV, newspapers, and magazines.