Ask Chef Emily: Perfect Risotto

Dear Chef Emily: I love risotto when I order it in restaurants. Any tips for making my own at home? It’s really intimidating! –Maya R., Hempstead

Dear Maya,

I love risotto too! It is a standby in the fall and winter in my home and with a little practice and butter, you can make a restaurant-worthy dish for yourself.

Butter? Oh yes. And cheese. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m going to break risotto down into components and give you some direction below.

The Rice
Arborio or any rice labeled “risotto rice” in the supermarket. It could be another varietal like Padano or Roma, but most of what we have here in the states is arborio, and it really must be rice. Anytime I see “quinoa risotto” I yell at my computer screen. The starch in each short, plump grain of rice sloughs off during cooking and helps create the creamy texture we know and love.

The Liquids: Wine & Stock
The rice is highly absorbent and you want the moisture to be delicious. Wine is the first liquid you add and as in any preparation, don’t cook with anything you wouldn’t drink. Never use “cooking wine” that can be found in the supermarket. It’s artificially flavored sugar water at best. For both white and red wines (red wine will result in a mauve risotto) any un-oaked variety will do. Look to the bottom shelf of the Spain/Portugal section of your wine shop for something under $10. I get a bottle called “Mediterranean White” from René Barbier that is $6 and is absolutely delicious. For something extra decadent, try an inexpensive Madiera, which I use in the method below.

For the stock, I  love my own homemade chicken stock when I have it on hand. When I don’t, Kitchen Basics is my go-to store bought brand. If you must use vegetable stock, I prefer Pacific Natural. It’s nice and mushroomy, but veg stock doesn’t have the gelatin content and therefore results in a thinner mouthfeel.

The Mixins
This is where you let your imagination run free! Like topping a pizza, editing is good, but feel free to mix and match flavors and textures. Here’s some of my favorite combinations:

Sausage, mushrooms and peas
Butternut squash and saffron
Bacon, Brussels sprout and balsamic
Shrimp and asparagus
Beets and rainbow chard (with red wine)

Prepare the mixins separately, using an appropriate technique to be their most delicious. Cook and crumble sausage, quarter and roast the Brussels sprouts, blanch and shock the asparagus. Rely on your instincts; if you want a rich deep risotto, then roast your vegetables. If you want something light and pure, opt for steaming. Let your palate be your guide. Whatever you decide, and depending on texture, either fold in right before serving, or make a little pile on top and mix in as you eat.

Cheese & Butter
It just wouldn’t be risotto without a knob of excellent quality butter stirred in at the end (mounted, as chefs say) and a hearty grating of hard, Italian cheese. I prefer grana padano, asiago, pecorino or a blend of all of the above.

You start with butter, too, so make sure there’s plenty on hand.

Risotto Method (exclusive of mixins)
Risotto making is very sensory based. Enjoy the process. It’s especially fun if you have a date with you in the kitchen with good music playing. It is Italian, after all and therefore prone to being romantic.

6 cups chicken stock
1 stick butter, divided
1 cup minced yellow onion
2 cups arborio rice
Kosher salt and black pepper grinder
1 1/2 cup Madeira wine
1 cup grated hard Italian cheese of your choosing (grana padano, asiago, pecorino, parmigiano all work)

  1. Heat the stock in one pot until it’s steaming. Have a ladle ready.
  2. In a second vessel (I use my rondeau for this, but a saucepan will do) melt about 2/3 of the butter over medium heat. Add the onion and sweat until just tender. Add the rice and stir to coat with the fat. Add a little salt and pepper.
  3. Add the Madeira and simmer gently, stirring until the liquid is almost completely absorbed.
  4. Now, you’ll begin adding chicken stock. This takes finesse and maybe some practice if finesse doesn’t come naturally. In the early additions of stock, you’ll add enough to cover the rice completely, plus a little extra, and let it simmer. You can stir it constantly if you want to, or you can stir it occasionally, it doesn’t matter except that stirring constantly will give you something to do. If you opt for stirring occasionally, don’t go too far because as soon as the liquid is level with the rice, you’ll add another couple of ladles of stock. As you cook along, add the stock in smaller increments. You can always add more; it is very difficult to get it back out again.
  5. Repeat this process until the rice tastes delicious. It should be soft, and pleasant to eat, but still have a little bit of resistance in the center. Let your palate guide you!
  6. Once you get there, turn off the heat and stir in the remaining 1/3 stick of butter and the grated cheese. Taste again and add more salt and pepper if necessary.
  7. When you spoon risotto onto a plate, it should be shiny and pool, with a little creamy sauce extending around the rice, and each grain should be intact and independent.

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