Risotto is an Italian rice dish that takes a little time to make but uses every minute of preparation to create a deliciously balanced and cohesive meal. It’s also an excellent recipe for dinner parties or guests because risotto easily makes large, easily shareable portions. Whether used as the main course of a meal or the base for a protein, a well-crafted risotto will wow and delight your family and friends.
What is Risotto?
A traditional Northern Italian recipe, risotto is generally Arborio rice that’s been cooked in some sort of broth and a little butter. The history of risotto (derived from the Italian word for rice — riso) is closely tied with the history of rice in Italy. Culinary rice was likely introduced to Italy through Sicily, but found a home in the northern regions of Italy, where the land was perfect for growing rice. At one point, this region of Italy was also controlled by the Spanish, which explains the similarities to paella.
The history of risotto (derived from the Italian word for rice — riso) is closely tied with the history of rice in Italy.
The main difference between risotto and paella, and other rice dishes for that matter, involves how they’re cooked. In most rice-based recipes, you set the rice to boil in the liquid and leave it at that until it’s cooked. With risotto, you add a little bit of the broth at a time, stirring the rice until the broth is absorbed before adding more broth. This process slowly coaxes out the starches in the rice, creating the creamy texture of the risotto. Adding butter and cheese only adds to this smooth, buttery flavor, emphasized by the al dente bite of the cooked rice. It’s important that the broth is heated before adding it to the risotto; if not it will cool the rice down and can actually stop the cooking process. This causes the starches to seize up, causing your risotto to be closer to gloopy than creamy.
A Rich, Decadent Dish Perfect for Sharing
While the Arborio rice is the central ingredient of risotto, it’s very much a team player, acting as a bridge between the other ingredients. As the broth cooks into the rice, it softens and absorbs the flavors of the broth and whatever else you’ve added. Over time, this allows the flavors of the ingredients to blend together perfectly. Take the starchy richness of the rice, blend in the umami, the salt and fat of butter and Parmesan, add in little bitterness from the white wine, to name a few ingredients, and you have a complex mix of flavors cohesively fused. When you add in a protein like seared scallops (a common showstopping ingredient with risotto) or fresh peas (which add a hint of sweetness to each bite), it becomes difficult to match the intricacy and density of flavors that risotto can offer with each bite.
As you can see, a risotto is effectively a blank canvas that you can use as a starting point to explore.
As you can guess, it’s a flexible dish that allows for a lot of experimentation and creativity. Traditional risotto alla Milanese calls for Arborio rice, white wine, onions, Parmesan cheese, stock, and saffron (there’s that Spanish influence). Most recipes used today drop the saffron, since it’s a pretty expensive ingredient. You can instead try a pesto sauce, with a bright freshness that can only come from basil. Another option would be a little tomato paste or chopped tomatoes for a red risotto. It’s even not unheard of to add peppers into your risotto. The type of broth you use can also influence the final flavor of the dish, as can your choice of proteins (or lack thereof). As you can see, a risotto is effectively a blank canvas that you can use as a starting point to explore.
- 1 ½ cups of Arborio rice
- 4-5 cups of chicken broth
- 1 cup of mushrooms, washed and cut
- 1 white onion, diced
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, diced
- ½ cup of peas, fresh or thawed if frozen
- 1 cup of white wine
- 5 tbsp of butter
- ½ cup of shredded Parmesan
- 6 large fresh scallops
- 5 tbsp of olive oil
- In a saucepan, begin warming the broth over low heat.
- In a large, deep sauté pan, heat two tablespoons of olive oil and a tablespoon of butter over medium heat.
- Once the butter is melted, add the diced onion, mushrooms, garlic, and peas in, and sauté until the onions are translucent and the garlic is fragrant. (Only a few minutes are necessary.)
- Remove the ingredients from the pan and set them aside.
- Add another tablespoon of olive oil and return to medium heat.
- Add the Arborio rice, and lightly toast the rice for a minute or two, just to add a little color.
- Add the white wine to the rice, stirring occasionally until the wine is absorbed into the rice.
- Begin ladling in roughly half a cup of warmed broth into the rice.
- Stir the rice and broth occasionally until the broth is fully absorbed.
- Ladle in another half cup of broth, repeating until the rice is at the desired texture. (It may not take all the broth to reach al dente or it may take more. If you need more, make sure to warm it first.)
- While you’re waiting for the broth to be absorbed, season the scallops with salt and pepper.
- In a separate pan, add two tablespoons of olive oil and heat it over high.
- Sear the scallops for roughly two minutes a side. (Don’t disturb them until it’s time to flip them.)
- Set the scallops aside.
- Stir in the remaining butter, the vegetables, and the parmesan cheese with the risotto once the broth is fully absorbed.
- Season with salt, pepper, and additional cheese and butter to your taste.
- Serve immediately for best results. Garnish with a few of the seared scallops.