Heat a flavorful liquid
I’ll admit to using the boxed stuff sometimes, but a good homemade broth can make a big difference in this dish where the flavor of the broth is concentrated as it cooks. If you use store-bought broth, buy a low-sodium one (giving you the freedom to salt to taste) and enhance the flavor by simmering some herbs and aromatics in it before adding it to the risotto.
Prepare your additions
Even if you don’t stir these ingredients in until later, you can enrich the final product by introducing their flavor early on in the cooking process:
Blanch vegetables in the risotto cooking liquid.
Strain liquid from rehydrating dried mushrooms into the cooking liquid.
Add some zucchini, radicchio or escarole in early on, allowing them to break down into the risotto and add the rest towards the end of the cooking process.
Add butter (or olive oil) and sweat your aromatics, typically minced shallots or onions. You can also add in any other vegetables that will do well with the 20 minutes of risotto cooking. A little pancetta added in at this point is nice, too.
After a few minutes, when the aromatics are softened, but not browned, you are ready to add the rice.
Coat rice with butter
Add hot liquid, one ladle at a time
After the first few ladles of broth have been incorporated, you’ll notice the grains swelling up and releasing starch into the liquid.
After 5 minutes
Every time you add a ladle of broth into your risotto pan, it should hiss gently and bubble. Stir, but don’t stir obsessively (I used to do that), just enough to heat the rice evenly and keep it from sticking. And don’t walk away from it.
After 10 minutes
If you are running low on broth, heat up some water so it’s ready in case the broth is used up before the rice is done.
After about 20 minutes, stir in final additions
If you really need to make it in advance, you could prepare it up to about 5 minutes shy of being done, spread it out on a sheet pan, cool, and, as some restaurants do, make it to order by heating the rice in a pan with a little bit of hot liquid and butter. It won’t taste as good as risotto prepared à la minute though. Better to just make everyone wait—it’ll be worth it and you might enjoy some peace and quiet in the kitchen.