The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

The Food Lab: The Road To Better Risotto

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Every week I try and do something completely different here at the Food Lab, and this week will be no different.

Being Colombian, my wife loves rice, and being of a diminutive frame prone to coldness, she also loves soup. So it's no wonder that risotto—which can be un-poetically described as soupy rice—lies somewhere between me and cheese sauce on her list of greatest loves.*

As such, I considered it my husbandly duty to discover not just how to make great risotto, but to discover how to do it in the most efficient way possible.

See, by fulfilling at least one of my husbandly duties (one of the most important, no less), I figure it gives me a little leeway on taking my time with the others.**

*Since getting married, I've given cheese sauce a run for its money but have yet to overtake it

**I swear an anniversary present and second anniversary present are coming soon. Both on back order.

Everyone knows risotto as the self-saucing Italian rice dish with the notoriously tedious-to-prepare reputation. It's also often stodgy, thick, and heavy. What is perfect risotto? First off, it should be saucy in texture. A perfect plate of risotto should flow like lava if you tilt the plate. Spoon it onto a hot dish (and you must use a hot dish), and it should slowly spread out until it forms a perfectly level disk. Sticky, tacky—or worse—gluey, are words that should never enter your head when eating it.

If it can stack up into a clump like this...

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...then you've got problems.

Listen: I could give this article about risotto the typical sensationalist opening and craft some story about how everybody (particularly those with Italian grandmothers) knows that to make great risotto, you've got to stir it gently and constantly, adding hot broth to the rice one cup at a time, waiting until it's absorbed before you add the next.

I could do that, but it'd be disingenuous. I mean, by this late stage in the game is there anyone in the world beside hard-line Italians who doesn't know that you can make a bowl of luscious, al dente, perfectly mantecato risotto without preheating your broth or stirring constantly?

I mean, people have been saying and writing about it for years now. I'm strongly convinced that the myth only exists because of grandmothers who used risotto as an excuse to either keep an unnecessary kitchen helper occupied for half an hour, or as an excuse to escape from the rest of the family for a while.

That said, I've still got a ton of risotto questions left unanswered, so this week I decided to test just about every aspect of risotto I could think of to separate fact from fiction.

Which type of rice is best? How much do you really need to stir? Is toasting necessary? And what about mounting with cream?

6.6 pounds of rice later, I've got a few answers.

So many questions, so many grains of rice, so little time. Let's get right to it, shall we?

Rice Advice

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First question: Which type of rice makes the best risotto?

Rice contains two molecules that make up its starch content, amylose, and amylopectin. Generally speaking, rices with a higher proportion of amylopectin to amylose will tend to soften more completely and thicken their sauce more strongly. All risotto starts with a short- to medium-grain form of rice high in amylopectin. It's the exact ratio of amylose to amylopectin that determine the final texture of your rice and sauce.

There are dozens of cultivars of short-grained rice used in Italy, but here in the U.S., you're likely to see only three types that'll work for risotto.

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  • Bomba is a Spanish rice used primarily for making creamy paellas. It's extremely short-grained, with a moderate level of amylopectin and makes a very fine risotto, despite the fact that it comes from the wrong country.
  • Arborio is the most common rice of choice. It's short-grained with almost zero amylose. It has a tendency to create a very thick sauce, and can very easily be overcooked to the point of mush because of its lack of structure. Even perfectly cooked Arborio will tend to be relatively soft.
  • Carnaroli or Vialone Nano are not quite as available as Arborio, but are my favorite varieties of rice for risotto. They strike a good balance between creaminess and intact texture. If you can find one of these, use them.

You may see the words fino or superfino written on the packaging of imported rices. While it'd be nice to imagine some Italian committee deciding exactly how fine a particular grain of rice is, it's not an indication of quality or attractiveness: it refers only to the width of the grain. You can mostly ignore these labels.

The Basics: Adding Broth and Stirring

Basic instructions for old-school risotto: Heat up a large pot of stock on the stove and keep it at a bare simmer. Toast rice briefly in butter and/or olive oil, then add a single ladleful of stock (you can use wine for this first liquid addition) and stir slowly with a wooden spoon until the stock is absorbed. Add another ladleful and repeat.

Continue doing this until the stock has all been absorbed, the rice is plump, and the broth is creamy. Finally, remove from heat and add cold butter and/or cream and/or parmesan cheese while stirring vigorously to halt cooking and add some extra richness and creaminess to the sauce.

This method works alright, but it's crazy inefficient. First off, there's no need to heat up the broth in a separate pot while you make the risotto. Sure, it'll shave a few minutes off the cook time of the actual rice, but you add that time back and more in the amount of time it takes to heat up a pot of stock, not to mention washing two pots instead of one. I've made risottos with stock straight from the fridge with no discernible difference in the final product.

And what about adding liquid all at once vs. in batches and stirring the whole time?

There are a couple of arguments in favor of adding in batches and stirring. First: when you add in smaller batches, the rice is kept in close contact. More starch is rubbed off, and your risotto ends up creamier.

For now, we'll ignore this theory and get back to it in a minute. The second argument is that it helps your rice cook more evenly. This one happens to be true. Sort of.

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Cook risotto in a standard risotto pot—that is, one that is relatively narrow along the bottom, and your rice and liquids stack. There's a huge height difference between the rice at the bottom of the pot and that at the top. The rice at the bottom, closer to the heat source, overcooks while the rice at the top barely gets done in time.

Stirring helps prevent this, but there's an even easier way: just use a wider, shallower pan.

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In a high quality wide skillet, the rice forms a fairly even thin layer along the bottom, which translates to much more even cooking. Using very low heat after initially bringing the liquid to a boil also helps. By cooking rice in a wide skillet like this, I found that I could get perfect results by adding the rice and almost all of the liquid at once, covering, and cooking over very low heat until the rice was done, stirring just once during the process.

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With the reserved liquid, I could then thin out the sauce to the desired consistency, boiling it hard for just a moment to thicken it up properly.

Now, on to bigger, bolder questions:

To Toast or Not To Toast?

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First off: Butter, olive oil, or both? It's largely a matter of personal taste. I like the complexity that you get from both types of fats as opposed to just one. There are some folks out there who claim that you add oil to the butter to prevent it from burning when you heat it, since butter starts burning in the low 300°F range, while most oils can get to 400°F or beyond before they start smoking.

This is silliness and shouldn't be believed. A mixture of butter and oil will still burn at the same temperature as butter. I know because I've tried it. It's the milk proteins in the butter that burn, and they don't care whether they're heated in oil or in pure butterfat. The only reason to combine butter and oil is for flavor, and you have to be careful not to burn the mixture when you heat it. Adding your rice or aromatics just as it stops foaming is key.

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I've always understood that the point of toasting risotto is to help develop flavor. By adding the dried grains of rice to a pan of hot butter and olive oil, you develop some really nice nutty, toasty flavors. But what else is going on when you toast rice?

I cooked up two identical batches of risotto side-by-side. The first I made with absolutely no toasting. The liquid and rice went into the pot at the exact same time. The latter, I toasted the rice for 3 to 4 minutes before adding the liquid, during which time it acquired a faint golden hue and a nutty aroma.

Here's what I ended up with:

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Obviously, there is something else going on while toasting: toasted rice produces a risotto that's noticeably less creamy than un-toasted rice.

So on one hand, you've got great, super-creamy rice, but with little toasted flavor. On the other, you've got rice with great nutty, toasty flavor, but relatively little creaminess. The problem is: How do you get your risotto both creamy and nutty?***

***Dennis Lee, please insert joke here

Isolating Starch

Here's my theory: I know that starch can break down under high heat. Ever compare the thickening power of a very light roux to a darkly cooked roux? The blonder it is, the better is thickens. Perhaps a similar thing was happening to the starch in my rice as I toasted it, robbing it of its thickening power.

To test this theory, I had to first isolate the starch used for thickening from the rest of the grain.

Now, some folks claim that the starch that thickens the sauce in a risotto comes from within the rice grains themselves—indeed, they say, that's the very reason you have to stir rice as it cooks. The jostling movement of the grains causes them to rub against each other, slowly scraping starch off and into the liquid.

This could be true, but it doesn't exactly explain how many of the more modern no-stir risotto cooking methods function so well. Is it possible that this thickening starch is simply on the surface of the grains to begin with? There's a very easy way to test if this is true or not: just rinse the rice.

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I ran my rice grains under a cold tap inside a metal strainer, rubbing them and watching as a starchy, milky white liquid collected underneath. I then cooked it just as I had before. What I ended up with was risotto with nearly no creaminess at all:

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Cooking a second batch according to the traditional method of stirring the entire time produced a risotto that was no more creamy. This confirmed that indeed, most of the starch that thickens a risotto resides in fine particles on the surface of the rice from the very beginning—stirring and jostling have little to do with its release. Even cooking is the only reason to stir risotto.

This fact handily provides us with the perfect solution for getting great toasted flavor in addition to perfect creaminess: simply remove the starch before toasting, and add it back before hydrating.

To test this, I cooked another batch of risotto, this time dumping the raw rice into a bowl and pouring my cold broth directly on top. I agitated the rice to release all of the starch, then poured it through a fine mesh strainer, reserving the starchy, cloudy broth on the side. (It was starchy enough that you could see white starch settling on the bottom).

After draining, I toasted my rinsed rice in a mixture of butter and olive oil until it was just beginning to turn golden brown. Finally, I added the starchy liquid back to the pot, brought it to a simmer, lidded it, and cooked it, stirring once in the middle.

What I ended up with was pure win:

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Risotto that was perfectly creamy, and nutty all in one pot. All that was left was to finish it with some extra cream (I like to whip my cream first to introduce a bit of air into the mix for a lighter risotto) and some cheese.

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Of course, there are all kinds of flavor variants you can work in here. Vegetables, dried mushrooms, fresh mushrooms, meats, saffron, other wines, miso paste—whatever—you've got the foundation, now go build your house.

(Protip: go high-low and stir in some nacho cheese sauce for an awesome treat.)

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With this epic project finally finished, I think I've earned at least a couple week's worth of respite from wife-caring duties. How fortuitous, as that's how long it's going to take her to get through all the risotto stockpiled in the fridge.

Get the complete recipe here! »

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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