Italy being Italy, and the cuisine being regional, risotto is only found in the traditional cuisine of the areas where rice is grown. This pretty much limits it to the regions of Piemonte, Lombardia, Emilia-Romagna, and the Veneto, where it’s cooked with much regional difference.
Risotto is a sublime dish when cooked correctly and a horror when not. Despite its simplicity, it’s an easy dish to get wrong and every Italian knows this. For example, one of my Venetian friends has mother who was born and raised in Sicily. Although she has lived in Venice for thirty years, she is not a native to the north, unlike risotto. For this reason, she will not cook risotto if any of her Venetian friends are coming to dinner, just in case she gets it wrong. After all, they have been cooking it all their lives and were taught to make it by their nonnas: she’s only been making it for thirty years.
Luckily, I was fortunate enough to have had a Venetian nonna, my Zia Rita (pictured above), who taught me how to make risotto when I was younger. In this post, I am going to share her secrets with you so that you too can learn to make risotto like a nonna.
The important thing with risotto is to follow all the steps. If follow the steps, it’s difficult to go wrong and you need to understand why each step is there and what they add to the risotto. Once you understand the steps recipes are easy to get right and you can even start creating your own risotti with any flavours you want. To practise, you can make a simple risotto with onion, butter, rice, water, and parmesan cheese.
To start off you will need a large, deep, saucepan, and a wooden spatula. You will also need another saucepan for the stock, and a ladle. Make sure you pick a proper risotto rice, of which there are several varieties, the best being carnaroli.
Stage 1: il soffritto
- Aims: to provide a flavour base for the rice
The soffritto is the base for the risotto and is used to flavour the rice grains before they are cooked. The soffritto can be merely a finely chopped onion, or shallot, or something a little more complicated such as the ‘holy trinity’ of onion, carrot, and celery which often form the basis of Italian and also French recipes—odori in Italian, mirepoix in French. Some recipes will call for other things (and indeed you can add your own) such as potatoes, leeks, or even lemon grass, depending on what you are going to put into the risotto.
The soffritto should be chopped as finely as you can since the idea is that it should mix in with and flavour the rice. You should then start off frying it gently (on a low flame) in the bottom of the risotto pan in a little olive oil, or butter with a dash of olive oil (the presence of the oil will stop the butter burning). You want to soften the soffritto to release the flavours but not colour it or—horror of horrors—burn it, as this will add a bitter taste to the risotto.
Stage 2: la tostatura
- Aims: to dry out the rice and to add the flavour base to the grains
Once the soffritto has been cooked, we use it to flavour the rice. We do this by adding the rice to the pan and stirring it, making sure that it is completely coated with the soffritto. At this point you turn up the heat to a medium flame since we want to remove any moisture from the rice grains as well as coating them with the soffritto. You must stir the grains all the time to avoid burning them on the bottom of the pan until they become slightly translucent.
Stage 3: lo sfumato
- Aims: to add further flavour to the rice grains
This stage, which literally means to smoke or make steam, adds a second level of flavour to the rice grains. The soffritto adds a certain level of umami to the grains and the sfumato adds a little acidity to balance it. For this reason we usually use wine, spirits, or even citrus juice at this stage. Once the tostatura is finished, you pour in the liquid all at once and you will be greeted with a whoosh and puff of smoke. Once the smoke settles over the rice you move immediately on to the next stage.
Stage 4: la cottura
- Aims: to cook the rice grains
We now proceed to cooking the rice by adding liquid, little-by little. The exact amount of time depends on the kind of rice you are using. The method here is to add ladlefuls of hot stock—or even just water—to the rice, one-by-one and stirring until the liquid has been absorbed. There is no shortcut here: you need to stir the rice constantly to ensure that it’s cooked evenly and add liquid only as necessary to make sure that the rice is not overcooked.
Avoid any recipes that you see claiming to have a magic method for risotto without stirring as they don’t work and will result in a dish where the rice is unevenly cooked and potentially a stodgy gloop in the bottom of the pan. I repeat, the only way to a decent risotto is adding the liquid little by little and stirring all the time. I actually find this stage rather meditative.
Most recipes will add the main ingredient of the risotto at this point, which then cooks along with the rice.
The cooking process will not take more than 15-18 minutes (depending on the rice) and after about 10 minutes you need to start testing the grains to see if they are cooked. A good risotto should be al dente which means that the grains show a bit of resistance as you bite through them with your front teeth. If they are crunchy, they are not cooked; if they are too soft they are overcooked. Like Goldilocks, you need to develop the ability to judge when they are just right. In this case ‘just right’ means slightly more al dente than you want since the rice will continue to cook in the final stages.
The risotto should not be completely dry but should have a little liquid left.
Stage 5: il riposo
- Aims: to lower the temperature of the risotto for the final stage and to finish cooking the rice
You see many recipes that will mix up the final two stages of risotto making usually ending up in a disaster. The final stage involves adding butter or cheese to the risotto and if you do that immediately the rice and remaining liquid will be too hot, and the fat can curdle. People think that adding the cheese now is logical since it will melt into the rice during the resting stage, but it’s not the best—or the nonna way—to do it.
In order to rest the risotto you should remove it from the heat completely, cover it with a lid, and leave it for about 5 minutes. The rice will continue to cook which is why you should stop cooking when the rice is almost ready.
Stage 6: la mantecatura
- Aims: to add flavour and a creamy texture to the risotto
The final stage of making a risotto involves adding fat, often butter, but more usually cheese. The name of this stage comes from the Spanish word for butter (manteca). This is done by adding and then gently stirring until all the fat has been melted into the rice. You should be careful not to stir too vigorously in order to not break up the rice grains—however, there is no danger of this if the rice has not been overcooked.
Before serving the risotto you need to check that the consistency is correct. In the north-East of Italy it is served all’onda literally ‘with waves’, which means with a loose liquid consistency. If your risotto is too thick, you can add a little broth or hot water at this stage.
Always serve a risotto as soon as it’s cooked and never be tempted to serve cold risotto reheated. The reheating will overcook the rice and you will be left with a stodgy mess. See my blog post here about what to do with left over risotto.
Is this how you make risotto? What’s your favourite flavour?