Risotto-making requires you to stand at the stove and do nothing except tend to the rice for about 20 minutes. On the face of it, that could sound like a drag. But, like me, you might find it a "Calgon, take me away" kind of escape.
The hot steam and the stirring, ladling, and more stirring transport me into a much-needed culinary meditation that results in a delicious meal. "Sorry kids, for the next 20 minutes please settle your own sibling battles, wipe your own noses, and find your own fun; Mommy's making risotto."
The beauty of risotto is that the rice releases starch into the broth as it cooks, making its own creamy, velvety dressing. Stir in a little butter and parmesan at the end, and you have a dish that's rich, satisfying, and elegant in its simplicity. With a few embellishments—some seasonal vegetables, shellfish, or a few bits of pancetta—you can turn out something that (like Calgon) feels truly luxurious.
They all kind of look the same? The differences are subtle...
There are the Italian varieties of rice that are generally considered to be best suited for risotto. Their plump, short- to medium-sized grains release just the right amount of starch as they are cooked and retain some firmness in the center.
Arborio rice is the most commonly used and widely available rice for making a very creamy risotto. You shouldn't overcook any kind of rice, but Arborio has a tendency to be less forgiving than the others and can get a little sticky.
Carnaroli rice is often more expensive and considered by many to produce a better risotto. Like Arborio, it is creamy and rich, but it holds its shape better than Arborio, making it easier to avoid a gummy, overcooked texture.
Vialone Nano, the stubbiest grain of the three, is favored in the Veneto region of Italy. It cooks up relatively quickly into a creamy risotto with a firm center. This is the hardest to find of the three, at least outside of Venice.
Other common rice varieties aren't ideal candidates for risotto—they don't have the right combination of starches that make a creamy sauce and retain a firm center. Sushi rice, for example, would be way too sticky. Basmati would not be neither creamy nor firm enough. In a pinch though, you can use standard medium grain rice, but it won't be as rich and creamy as a classic risotto.
My conclusion: if you're going to stand at a hot stove for twenty minutes, you might as well use the real thing.
But if it's an unconventional risotto that you seek, then consider a non-rice option. You can apply the basic risotto-making technique to barley or even certain types of pasta, like orzo or Israeli couscous.
About the author: Kumiko writes the blog Recipe Interrupted. She believes that having a few cooking techniques under your belt can help make home cooking creative and easy, and is excited to share these basics here on her regular column Technique of the Week. A graduate of Brown University, the Institute of Culinary Education, and a mother of two hungry girls, Kumiko is always trying to keep her Brooklyn kitchen smelling of something good.
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