Heat a flavorful liquid
In a saucepan, heat up some flavorful broth (like chicken or vegetable), about three to four times as much liquid as rice, by volume. Keep it steaming hot (not boiling) while you cook.
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
Have any additions (vegetables, shellfish, meat) ready for when you need them. Depending on the recipe, they may need to be sautéed, blanched, poached, seared, pureed, or simply peeled and diced. The amount of cooking time the ingredient needs will determine when you add it to the risotto.
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.
Heat a heavy-bottomed saucier, enameled cast-iron Dutch oven or a wide, not-too-deep saucepan over a moderate flame.
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
Over medium heat, stir in the dry, unwashed rice so that the rice is evenly coated with fat. Allow the rice to roast lightly, but not develop any color, for about 2 to 3 minutes.
Adding wine to just about any risotto dish adds a nice acidic and fruity balance.
Stir in about ½ a cup or so (depending on your taste and the amount of rice you are cooking) over medium-high heat. A heat-proof silicone spatula does a good job of swiping up all the grains – make sure you get the sides and the bottom of the pan.
When the wine is fully absorbed, start adding hot broth by the ladleful.
Add hot liquid, one ladle at a time
This rice is ready for some more hot broth. The liquid has been absorbed, but the pan is not so dry that the rice is sticking to the pot.
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
Some broth has just been added here. If the pan is hot enough, this much broth should be absorbed in roughly 2 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 it doesn’t yet, the risotto-in-progress will soon start looking like you might want to dip a spoon in it. When that happens, follow your instinct and start tasting and seasoning. As the risotto gets closer to being done, add in smaller amounts of liquid. Be careful not to overcook it.
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
Once the risotto is creamy, plumped-up, and still slightly firm (not hard) in the center, you’re ready to finish up. You may not use all the broth. Off the heat, stir in a final, small amount of liquid. Fold in cooked vegetables, meat, chopped herbs. Add a pat or two of butter, some freshly grated parmesan and stir well until the rice looks velvety and rich.
As soon as it’s ready, spoon the risotto into warmed shallow bowls and serve.
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.