Risotto Research Results, Part 1 - Basics

Hello, Readers! How are you liking the new address so far? Because I love it.
Now, remember when I said I’d research the problem of risotto in depth this year? I wasn’t  lying. I did just that, and it was research indeed – experimenting myself, reading up on the matter, consulting competent acquaintances and cookbooks… all so that you can all find out, right here,

How To Make a Good Risotto

Carnaroli rice, basil, garlic, cheese, olive oil and wine – all very important when making risotto

This part of the Risotto Guide is not going to be an actual recipe (yet), but I am going to list the typical, indispensable ingredients, and give you tips about them, as well as about the process in general.
Most of you probably know what risotto is, but for those that might not, risotto is an Italian dish made of rice that was cooked into soft form, with Parmesan and usually some aromatic vegetables.
Now, there are some things you should know about the basic ingredients of risotto. The short version of my tips is in the list below, and the longer descriptions below still.
The indispensable ingredients of risotto are:
  • Rice – always use the special varieties for risotto.
  • Olive oil/Butter – some recipes will call for one, some for the other. Olive oil is easier to use. Don’t substitute other fats (sunflower oil, margarine).
  • Bouillon/Broth – what the rice is cooked in. Different types are used for different tastes of risotto. Take the time to actually make it, unless you have a really tried and tested ready-made variety.
  • Wine – just a glass is added at the start. It has to match the other ingredients. The rest should be served with the dish.
  • Parmesan cheese – you can substitute other cheeses, provided they are as close to actual parmesan as possible. It won’t work with generic yellow things.
A plethora of other ingredients is added to make specific risotto, but before we get to that, let’s take a closer look at the mandatory stuff.
Always use actual risotto rice – such as arborio, carnaroli, or vialone nano. Seriously. Don’t even start if you have long grain rice because it’s not going to work. I tried. The result is hours of wasted work and expensive ingredients.
The reason you need short-grain, round rice is that it’s high in starch and will cook into a sort of cream but with slightly harder grain centers still palpable, which is what risotto is meant to be. Other varieties of rice would have to be overcooked to pudding point to reach a similar form, and the taste would be different.
Olive oil or Butter
This is one of Italy’s many, many, many cooking feuds. There is the olive oil camp and the butter camp, long at war with one another, and only unifying in hatred of the “add a bit of both” camp. The reasons for that are traditional and not really relevant for us, unless any of you, Readers, are traditionally minded Italians, in which case why on earth are you reading my posts about making risotto?
It’s to loudly list everything I got wrong, isn’t it. Damn.
Anyway, here’s what I found about the conundrum: it’s much easier to do with olive oil, so use that, and maybe add some butter if you’re using ingredients that go well with butter on their own (mushrooms, chicken, etc.) Butter has a much lower burning temperature, and you’d have to add much more to have a good enough coating of it on the pan to prevent rice from sticking to it. Olive oil is more practical and fits well with other Mediterranean tastes.
Whatever you do in the end, don’t even think of using other types of fat, like coconut or rice oil, because you’ll remove an important portion of the final effect.
Bouillon or Broth
Vegetables for buillon
Whether you use vegetable bouillon, or meat stock, depends on other ingredients. Recipes will call for one or the other accordingly.This is what the rice is actually cooked in – it’s soaked in the bouillon. This means you need a good, tasty thing and not a watery, stale sadness. If possible, take the time to prepare the base at home (this can be done the previous day), and season it with all the spices that you’d add to your risotto. It is said that the bouillon is what the ready dish will smell of, so think of that as you make it, and don’t be shy with basil, thyme and rosemary in your stock. The bouillon is also the best way to introduce salt into the dish, since it will permeate it all evenly. Risotto likes a nice dose of sea salt, and it’s infinitely better to have a salty broth than to try and salt the rice afterwards.
A glass of wine has to go in at the start to make the rice grains happy. Don’t take that away from them, and they will then make you happy in return.
The type of wine is usually chosen to go well with the ingredients. Typically it will be white wine, though some recipes that use frutti di mare may call for rosé, and “tougher” recipes might call for red. It’s always dry or semi-dry, though. I’ve only ever heard whispered horror stories of people who made risotto with sweet. Context suggests they were disturbed individuals.
There’s no escaping the fact. It has to be good cheese, as close to Parmesan or Grana as possible. I’ve found some types of strong, dry cheddars and some Dutch cheeses also work, but the guideline is simple: the more it resembles Parmesan, the more it’s suitable for risotto.  Don’t try to use some Generic Gouda-ish Yellow Thing, but also don’t try to use mozzarella or other mild, soft cheeses. It needs a good helping of Parmesan and it should get it. Traditionally, it was often served in hollowed-out Parmesan shells.
Risotto is, in general, rather an uncompromising dish. As with many Italian dishes, the base quality of the ingredients can make it or break it, and it doesn’t take well to substitutions that take it away from the country of origin. But if you don’t mess about with the basics, it’s really worth it.
Bonus - picture of cheese!
Stay tuned for Part 2 – The Process!


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