Why It Works
- Briefly simmering shrimp shells and heads with aromatics produces an intensely flavored shellfish stock.
- Using a classic risotto cooking method allows for better control over the final texture of the rice.
- Stirring raw shrimp into the rice just before serving prevents them from overcooking.
- Intentionally loosening the risotto with stock right before serving ensures that it will set up to the proper consistency when plated.
Risotto cookery has long been a hot topic of debate around these parts. “Stirring is for suckers; it’s so tedious!” “Rinse the starch off!” “Use a pressure cooker!” “Italian grandmothers are full of it!” It’s Marriage Story meme gold. I’m not interested in stirring up more controversy over the best way to cook risotto, I just really enjoy stirring rice.
One of risotto’s best qualities is that it’s a blank canvas for flavor; how you choose to paint it is a matter of preference. This recipe uses a more classic cooking approach than the innovative methods used in other risotto recipes on Serious Eats, and it produces a shrimp risotto brimming with deep shellfish flavor.
The easiest way to impart flavor to the rice is by cooking it in an intensely aromatic stock. Oftentimes this can be accomplished by simply infusing a neutral chicken or vegetable stock with assertive ingredients like dried porcini for mushroom risotto, or saffron for risotto alla milanese. Morsels folded into risotto, like seared fresh mushrooms, provide pops of flavor and texture in the final dish, but the stock is really doing the heavy lifting. For shellfish and seafood-based risottos, making stock from scratch is the way to go.
The Quick and the Head: Keys to Great Shrimp Stock
The most important part of making a good shrimp stock is using the right shrimp for the job: head-on shrimp. The shells and heads are rich in glutamates and nucleotides that contribute savory aromas, along with sugars and proteins that contribute to Maillard browning when subjected to heat. Long story short: shells and heads equal flavor. Some of these flavor compounds are nonvolatile, meaning that they don’t dissipate during cooking, but the primary compounds responsible for shrimpy flavor are very volatile, which means that they evaporate during cooking. What does that mean for making shrimp stock? Just that it’s a very quick process. After cooking the shells and heads in olive oil (some of the aromas we’re after are fat-soluble, and the oil coaxes them out and then traps them) along with aromatics and umami-rich tomato paste, I add water and simmer the stock for just ten minutes before straining out the solids. The most intensely flavored shrimp stock is a quick-cooked one.
During recipe development I conducted side-by-side tests of risotto made with shrimp stock that used just shrimp shells and stock made with shells and heads. The head-on shrimp stock risotto was the clear winner—it boasts a far richer and deeper shrimp flavor, even though I used the same weight of shell-on and head-on shrimp, meaning that there was more shrimp meat in the shell-on version.
We always recommend purchasing individually quick frozen shrimp as opposed to shrimp that have already been thawed (most shrimp available for purchase are frozen as soon as they are harvested to preserve texture and flavor). This is particularly important for head-on shrimp, as the heads contain enzymes that can make the shrimp’s meat mushy. Freezing halts this process, so you’re much better off buying frozen shrimp, which allows you to control the thawing process. Thaw the shrimp as close to when you plan to make the risotto as possible.
Stirring the Pot: Classically Cooked Risotto Isn't a Slog
With the stock squared away, we can turn to the rice cookery. I start by sweating finely chopped onion in a wide-bottomed saucier (the sloped walls of a saucier or Daniel’s favorite pasta pan are perfect for risotto, and a 5-quart capacity is ideal, but even a 3-quart will work). If you don’t have a saucepan in that style, a Dutch oven or even a skillet will work just fine. I then toss in the rice (I’m partial to carnaroli) and toast it until the grains smell nutty and start to look like ice cubes—translucent around the edges and opaque in the center.
I add a pinch of red pepper flakes and deglaze with white wine before adding a cup of tomato passata and a ladleful of the shrimp stock. Tomato is a choice, not a requirement, for shrimp risotto. You can omit tomato paste in the stock and the passata in the risotto if you prefer an in bianco preparation. I find that the savory, sweet, and acidic notes of tomato pair very well with the deep shellfish aroma in the stock.
Now comes the fun or tedious part, depending on who you ask. I love the rhythmic process of constantly stirring and tossing the pot as the rice absorbs each addition of stock. I find it soothing, and it's also a great excuse for a little alone time in the kitchen. “Don’t talk to me right now, I’m making risotto!” is generally considered socially acceptable behavior. Take advantage of it.
Keep adding stock, keep stirring and tossing, and in a little under 15 minutes the rice grains will have swelled, becoming tender around the edges, with a firm raw bite at the center. While I said earlier that I don’t want to argue over the merits of different risotto methods, I think it’s worth noting that in my experience I’ve found that the classic cooking method maintains that textural integrity of the rice much better than no-stir or pressure-cooker risottos. The grains stay more distinctly separate while being suspended in liquid, while the other methods produce rice that is slightly blown out and melds more into the stock.
I stir in the shrimp and more stock, keeping the pan on the heat just long enough to cook the shrimp through, at which point the rice will have reached the perfect doneness, toeing the line between firm and crunchy at the very center of each grain. I finish with a handful of chopped parsley, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a splash of stock.
Timing Is Everything: How to Serve Risotto
This is the point where timing is everything. You need to plate the risotto quickly, on warmed plates (not bowls, if you’re being a purist). It’s important to keep in mind that no matter how fast you move, the risotto will tighten up in the time it takes to get it from the saucepan to the plate and then into the mouths of your dinner guests. So, you need to hedge, and have the risotto at a looser consistency than you are comfortable with. The term that always gets used to describe the proper flowing texture of risotto is all’onda, or “to the wave.” When tossing and stirring the rice in the pot, it should be loose enough to make waves, and quickly fill in the negative space whenever you drag a spatula across the bottom of the pan. Right before plating, make it just a little bit looser than that. Not swimming in broth, but it should definitely be high tide in the saucepan.
Many risottos are finished with butter and cheese to provide extra creaminess to the rice. The issue with dairy is that it can also mute the other flavors in the dish. For this recipe, I prefer to let the deep shrimp flavor of the stock shine. This risotto is plenty rich as is.
- 1 pound (455g) medium to large head-on shrimp (see note)
- 1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 medium (8-ounce; 225g) yellow onion, half cut into large dice, half finely chopped, divided
- 2 medium garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 tablespoon (15g) tomato paste
- 2 sprigs fresh parsley plus 1 packed cup (15g) leaves and tender stems, finely chopped, divided
- 3/4 cup (180ml) dry white wine, divided
- 7 cups (1.5L) water
- Kosher salt
- 2 cups (400g) short grain risotto rice, such as carnaroli or arborio
- Pinch red pepper flakes (optional)
- 1 cup (240ml) tomato passata
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) fresh lemon juice from 1 lemon, plus lemon wedges for serving
Peel and devein shrimp, reserving the shrimp shells; if using head-on shrimp, twist off the heads and reserve with the shells. Using a sharp knife, cut shrimp crosswise into 3/4-inch pieces (3 to 4 pieces per shrimp, depending on size). Transfer to a small bowl and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Refrigerate shrimp until it’s time to add them to the risotto.
In a medium Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons (30ml) olive oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add reserved shrimp shells and cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until shells turn deep orange and oil is rust-colored and aromatic, about 5 minutes. Optional: If you and your guests aren't put off by people sucking shrimp heads at the dinner table, remove one to two shrimp heads per person (depending on size), and reserve them for garnishing the finished risotto. Just don't get greedy and fish out too many; the heads are the main source of flavor for the shrimp stock.
Add diced onion and garlic and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until onion begins to soften and turn brown around the edges, 3 to 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and parsley sprigs and cook, stirring constantly, until tomato paste turns rust-colored and begins to stick to the bottom of the pot, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add 1/4 cup (60ml) wine and, using a wooden spoon, scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot.
Add water, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, set a fine-mesh strainer over a large bowl. Strain stock through prepared strainer, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible; discard solids. If you have a 3- or 5-quart saucier or our recommended pasta pan, you will use that to cook the risotto. Otherwise, wipe out the Dutch oven.
In a 3- or 5-quart saucier or now-empty Dutch oven, heat remaining 2 tablespoons (30ml) olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add remaining finely chopped onion, season lightly with salt, and cook, stirring frequently, until onion is translucent and soft but not browned, 5 to 7 minutes.
Increase heat to medium-high, add rice, and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until rice is evenly coated in oil and toasted but not browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Rice should smell nutty and grains should start to look like tiny ice cubes: translucent around the edges and cloudy in the center. Add red pepper flakes (if using) and remaining 1/2 cup (120ml) wine. Cook until wine is almost completely evaporated, about 30 seconds.
Add tomato passata, 1/2 cup (120ml) of shrimp stock, and season lightly with salt. Cook, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, until liquid is mostly absorbed, 1 to 2 minutes. Continue to cook, adding stock in 1/2-cup increments while stirring constantly, until rice is softened on the exterior but still slightly raw and crunchy at the center, 13 to 15 minutes.
Add shrimp and another 1/2 cup stock, reduce heat to medium, and continue to cook until shrimp and rice are just cooked through, about 2 minutes. There should be enough liquid in the pot that the rice flows when you stir it. Keep in mind that the risotto will tighten up in the time it takes to plate and serve it, so adjust with more stock as needed to achieve a free-flowing consistency, leaving it looser than you think it should be (you may not need to use all of the stock). Season with salt to taste and stir in chopped parsley. Divide between warmed plates and serve immediately, passing lemon wedges at the table.
Head-on shrimp make the most flavorful shrimp stock and are well worth seeking out for this recipe. If you’re lucky enough to have access to genuinely fresh or live shrimp, use those (please note that we’re very jealous of you). For everyone else, we recommend purchasing individually quick frozen (IQF) shrimp, rather than shrimp that have already been thawed. This is especially important for head-on shrimp, as the heads contain enzymes that can render the shrimp meat mushy; freezing halts this process. Thaw shrimp as close to cooking as possible. High quality, sustainably farmed, frozen head-on shrimp can be purchased online from seafood purveyors such as Wulf’s Fish.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Shrimp stock can be made in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month. However, because the shrimp themselves should be cooked as soon as possible once thawed (and should never be re-frozen), we don't recommend making the stock more than 1 day in advance. If making the stock in advance, do not cut up and season the shrimp in step 1 until you are ready to start cooking the risotto; instead, arrange the peeled and deveined shrimp in a single layer on a small tray, tightly wrap it with plastic, and refrigerate until ready to use.