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There are a lot of dishes that are made by transforming humble ingredients into glorious foods. Heck, that's what peasant cooking is all about. But I have to give special credit to the cooks of Milan and the surrounding region of Lombardy, because when they created risotto alla milanese, they took that idea a step further, recasting ordinary rice as one of the most opulent of dishes. Just consider its appearance alone—it's practically gilded. The metamorphosis, of course, is courtesy of saffron, the risotto's star ingredient.
Already I anticipate a rebuttal: Bah! Saffron is worth more than its weight in gold! This is a luxurious dish by any standard! And there's truth to that. Saffron, the threads of one particular type of crocus, has an extraordinary price due to the difficulty of harvesting it. I know the challenge firsthand, having once spent days on a farm painstakingly plucking each crocus flower's measly three threads (technically, the stigmas). I doubt I got even a quarter ounce by the end of it.
There's a flip side to this, though, which is that even in saffron-centric dishes like risotto alla milanese, you need only a couple of small pinches for the whole batch. I even have some of my original handpicked stash left—10 years later. I did the math during my testing for this recipe and concluded that I was using less than $5 worth of saffron for four full servings—hardly an amount that will break the bank. Ounce for ounce, saffron may be more expensive than gold, but it's practically weightless, which means that, for the home cook, it never comes close to costing all that much.
Assuming you're willing to invest in a small jar of saffron, risotto alla milanese is one of the simplest risottos to make. When done correctly, the finished dish will have that enchanting saffron aroma, and each grain of rice will be suspended in a creamy, daffodil-yellow sauce. Spooned onto a warm plate, it should gently collapse under its own weight, spreading out like a slow lava flow, neither thin nor clumpy.
The best way to make it, though, breaks just about every traditional risotto rule. It's a method Kenji first developed and wrote about several years ago after rethinking the typical stand-and-stir process. It's also far easier.
Here's how to do it.
First, Choose Your Rice
A well-stocked Italian food shop will often have more than one variety of rice for risotto. Arborio is the most common, but two others you're likely to see are carnaroli and vialone nano. Kenji has written about these types of rice before in his risotto article (read it for a more in-depth discussion of their respective starch contents), but, while I've cooked with all of them before, I'd never done a true side-by-side comparison.
I decided to whip up batches of Milanese risotto with each type, keeping all the other variables the same, just to see how significant their differences are in practice.
The results? As with many things like this, they were mostly subtle. I was least happy with how the arborio rice turned out: It developed a slightly mushy texture toward the end of cooking, the grains becoming less distinct. The carnaroli and vialone nano both performed better in this regard, each grain retaining its clear form within the creamy sauce.
And that leads to the next difference that I found most noticeable: their form. The carnaroli rice is longer and slenderer, while the vialone nano is more squat and round; you can feel the difference in your mouth. Between the two, I liked those tubby little vialone nano grains more, but that's strictly a personal preference.
I also thought that maaaaaaaaybe the vialone nano created a slightly creamier risotto, but I wasn't sure. And if I couldn't be sure when tasting them side by side, I think we can safely conclude that it's not a particularly significant factor.
Rinse Rice With Stock (And Save That Stock!), Then Toast
Right from the first step of this risotto recipe, you'll notice how we're deviating from tradition. Just to review, the age-old method is to sauté minced onion in butter or oil, then add the dry rice grains and toast them, then add the cooking liquids little by little while stirring very frequently until the risotto is finished.
Here, we first rinse the uncooked rice with the stock we'll later use to cook it. When we do that, we strip surface starches from the rice and collect them in the stock. What Kenji found when he ran his cooking tests was that the classic rice-toasting step did two things: First, it developed the flavor of the rice by making it taste nuttier. Second, it reduced the thickening ability of the surface starches on the rice—which, by the way, are the starches primarily responsible for thickening the risotto's cooking liquids.
This creates a dilemma. Those starches are most effective at creating the wonderfully creamy sauce for the rice grains before the grains are toasted, but toasting the rice grains is helpful for the dish's final flavor. The rinsing step solves this by separating the two, lifting the starch off the rice grains and setting it aside, conveniently, in the stock that will be used to cook the rice.
Once the rice is well drained, it's ready to be toasted in the oil. The slight dampness from the stock quickly cooks off, and the rice begins to sizzle and pop and smell toasty. The grains will also look like ice cubes: cloudy in the center, translucent around the edges.
Add Onion, Liquids, and Saffron, Then Cover and Cook
After the rice has toasted for a good few minutes, it's time to add the minced onion and cook it for a minute or two, just until softened. Then, before it begins to brown, add dry white wine to drop the pan's heat, and cook it, stirring, until it's nearly evaporated. I've conducted tests on wine in cooking before and found that most of the rules you hear don't matter much, particularly the one that says you should cook only with wine you'd drink. The truth is, any dry white wine will work here, including wine that's many days old and well beyond something you'd want to sip.
With the wine mostly cooked off, you can add most of that starchy stock all at once, reserving a small portion for later. It's critical to make sure that all the rice grains are submerged, lest those clinging to the side of the pan not cook.
Along with the stock, add a couple of pinches of saffron and some salt. As soon as it comes to a simmer, lower the heat as much as possible, cover the pan, and leave it to cook until almost all of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender. Total number of times you need to stir during this phase of the process: once, midway through.
That's a pretty fantastic improvement on the stand-and-stir method most recipes offer.
Add More Liquid and Work in the Finishers
At this point, the rice is done and most of the liquid is absorbed. You should notice that the saffron has infused into the rice, tinting it yellow and flavoring it throughout. Now is the time to hit the risotto with the reserved starchy stock and stir it in—just make sure you give that stock a good stir first so that you don't leave behind any precious starch that's settled on the bottom of the container. This final addition of stock will help loosen the rice and give it a flowing texture, but it's possible you'll need to add more liquid if the rice soaks it up too quickly.
To finish the risotto, I stir in some butter, enriching the flavor and giving it a glossy sheen. Then I work in freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano off the heat, stirring rapidly to emulsify it. Risotto is a finicky thing, so you may find that it tightens up during these last steps. The solution is simple: Add more liquid as needed, either additional stock or water.
You could stop here and serve the risotto. But even better is to stir in a little whipped cream right before serving. It's a restaurant trick I picked up years ago, and it gives the risotto an unbelievably silky, creamy, and light texture. For any traditionalists who object, it's worth remembering that whipped cream is just more butterfat and water in an aerated form.
Go ahead and do it—this is one lily that gets better the more you gild it.