Food writers spend a lot of time waxing poetic about magical childhood food memories, and attempts at recreating—but never quite capturing—that original ideal experience. But sometimes the opposite happens. Sometimes we eat bad versions of dishes in our childhood and we somehow end up accepting it, as if the bad version is all that dish can ever hope to be. I had that problem with arancini, the deep-fried Sicilian rice balls.
I grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1980s, and I remember eating arancini there as a kid. They were huge, the size of softballs, and dry and bland to the core. Ragù, mushy peas, and bits of cheese studded throughout couldn't save them. I remember eating them, hoping that the next bite would break through and reveal the good part, like an oil prospector drilling into a parched landscape, just waiting for liquid black to come surging up from below. It was an exercise in perpetual disappointment, but it's also all I ever knew.
When I started testing this recipe, I had moments of self-doubt. A rice ball would come out starchy and dry, and for a moment, I'd think, Maybe this is right, maybe this is exactly what it's supposed to be. I finally snapped myself out of the haze by reaching out on Twitter, seeking outside voices to set me straight. It worked! The chorus of responses made clear the obvious: arancini should have a thin, crackling-crisp coating, like a potato chip, just barely containing the flow of rice suspended in a rich, creamy sauce. And in the very middle, a pocket of juicy melted cheese that stretches from our hands to our mouths in thin gauzy strands.
The hive mind spoke, and I responded. This is the result.
First Run: the Rice and the Riches
Which rice to use for arancini at first seems obvious: it's an Italian rice ball, so the rice should be some kind of risotto rice like arborio, carnaroli, or vialone nano. But I did some poking around on Italian recipe sites, and stumbled across mentions of another type of rice for arancini: riso originario. I didn't know what it was, but after some research it started to look like orginario was an even shorter grain rice than the traditional risotto rice varieties, with some sources describing it as being similar to short-grain Japanese sushi rice.
Intrigued, I picked up a bag of sushi rice to try alongside risotto rice.
During my initial run of tests, I also wanted to settle on a basic approach for the recipe. Most that I saw online have you make something like a dry risotto, then cool it down, roll it into balls, bread them and then deep fry them. This is, more or less, how the ones of my childhood were likely made, and the results aren't good. If any of you have ever had leftover risotto and tried to reheat it later, you'll immediately understand why. Risotto thickens as it cools, and it doesn't flow again if you just warm it up. You have to add more liquid to loosen it during reheating.
The problem with arancini is that, once cooled and formed into balls, there's no opportunity to rehydrate the rice inside before cooking. So the question becomes: how can we guarantee a flowing, saucy center when we deep fry the rice balls? I did some more digging and found some recipes that call for mixing eggs into the cooled risotto. I figured I'd try it, but I wasn't convinced that would solve the problem, so I came up with another idea inspired by croquettes, a related deep-fried snack that uses bechamel sauce. The beauty of bechamel is that it thickens when cold, but then, when subjected to the heat of deep frying, it becomes molten again.
The above photo shows four side-by-side tests, comparing risotto rice and sushi rice, and also egg versus bechamel sauce. I found that sushi rice produced the best results: the grains retained their shape and a pleasantly chewy texture, whereas the risotto rice blew out and became slightly mushy. The differences weren't drastic enough to say that you should never use risotto rice, but if you have the choice, reach for that Japanese short-grain rice if you can.
The samples with the egg, meanwhile, had a good, rich flavor, but the high heat of deep frying overcooked it, resulting in dry sections of firm egg—not what I was looking for. The bechamel, on the other hand, produced exactly the results I wanted: grains of rice suspended in a rich, creamy sauce.
In another test run, I tried going for gold by combining the bechamel with egg, and that was the best of all, creating a sauce that was incredibly rich, but without the hard-cooked bits of egg like before.
Improving the Flavor
Once I'd settled on the sushi rice and bechamel-and-egg sauce, I started working on a more precise recipe for the filling itself. I settled on a Milanese-style risotto, which is made with saffron. It's a pretty common flavor for arancini, plus it gives them a golden hue, an appropriate quality given that the name means "little oranges" in Italian.
I also decided to tweak the bechamel portion of the recipe, since I wanted more than just the mild flavor of milk. Instead, I pushed the bechamel in the direction of a velouté by cutting back on the milk and adding some rich chicken stock in its place. Plus, by using a gelatin-rich chicken stock (or by adding unflavored gelatin to store-bought stock), the bechamel would thicken even more once chilled, which would aid in the formation of the balls.
To make the rice, I start with a classic risotto method, sweating onion in oil, then adding the rice and toasting it. Then I add white wine followed by chicken stock and saffron. I used the pressure-cooker during my testing, which cuts the risotto cooking time drastically and produces great results, but you can also use the more traditional method of adding the broth in ladlefuls and stirring frequently. You want the rice to get tighter and drier than if you were going to serve it as a risotto, since too much water will make it very hard to form into balls.
While the risotto is cooking, I prepare the bechamel sauce, then stir them together. I pour the whole thing onto parchment-lined baking sheets and transfer it to the refrigerator to chill completely, which sets it enough to form into balls.
A Question of Construction
I walked a fine line with my recipe here: too wet and you won't be able to make rice balls, but any drier than it needs to be and the arancini won't be as moist as they could be—and we want moist! I pushed me rice filling about as far as I could, while still making it possible to form into balls. You may be tempted to dip your hands in water to keep the filling from sticking to them as you work, but I don't recommend it since the extra water will thin the filling and make it less able to hold its shape.
To form the balls, I scoop up a small handful of the rice filling and pat it into a flat disk in my palm, then set some diced mozzarella in the center and fold the rice filling around it to form a sphere with the cheese in the center—mine were just a little smaller than the size of a handball. At first you may not get perfect spheres, but that's okay because you'll be able to fix them later.
One other question I had was whether I could simplify the ball-forming process by just folding diced mozzarella into the rice filling, instead of planting it perfectly in the center of each one.
This didn't work: with the cheese too close to the surface, it ruptured and burnt, so you really do need to put the cheese in the center of each one.
In the end, I found that while the balls are at first hard to form into perfect spheres, once you get the breading on them and let them sit as you form the remaining balls, they become much easier to handle. Right before dropping them in the hot oil, all you need to do is pat each one in your hands just a little more and it will turn into a perfect ball.
With my rice balls formed, the next step was to figure out the breading. I did a few tests: homemade breadcrumbs made from a rustic loaf; regular panko breadcrumbs; and panko that's been more finely ground in a food processor.
The homemade crumbs produced the best result, creating a thin, incredibly crisp crust. The ground panko came in a close second, and definitely scores some convenience points. The larger panko crumbs, on the other hand, create a thicker exterior with a craggy texture that I found less appealing here: the goal is little oranges, not little fuzzy tennis balls.
A breaded crust, though, is about more than just the bread crumbs themselves, it's also about the dredging layers underneath the crumbs that help the breading adhere. I tried it out a couple ways: first, I did a very traditional flour and egg-wash dredging, in which I first dusted the rice balls in flour, then dipped them in egg, and finally rolled them in the bread crumbs.
I also tried dipping the balls in a flour-and-water slurry followed immediately by the bread crumbs, which is a method I saw in some Italian recipes online. Both methods worked well, but I ever so slightly preferred the extra-crisp crust on the flour slurry ones, and since it's simpler to do than the 3-step flour-egg-breading method, it's the one I'm recommending here.
Because the rice balls are pretty damp and sticky, I also wanted to see what would happen if I skipped the slurry altogether and just rolled them directly in the breadcrumbs, but as you can see in the photo above, it resulted in rice balls with a less crisp crust that didn't brown as deeply, even after lengthy frying.
Some Gratuitous Photos
Let's take one last look.
Fried crisp, but not greasy!
So juicy...you don't even need marinara sauce with these.
Strands of cheese, just the way it should be (and in case you're wondering, this photo is blurry because those cheese strands are running straight into my mouth, which made taking a photo really hard!)
These arancini hit all the marks: a shattering crisp crust outside and a creamy, gooey rice filling inside. Once I arrived at these, all those childhood memories of massive, throat-clogging balls of dry rice were replaced with this new, improved vision of what arancini are supposed to be.