An incredibly versatile dish, risotto bears an undeserved reputation of being challenging to cook. Admittedly, it can go wrong more easily than macaroni and cheese, but that can be avoided with just a bit of preparation and diligence. Although commonly used as a mere side dish, this «plain» risotto may well eclipse whatever fancy main course you’re inflicting it upon. Risotto can also be turned into a complete dinner with the inclusion of a few vegetables and herbs — in fact, I have a few particularly good combinations lined up for future posts —, but here I’ll concentrate on perfecting it in its purest form.
Source public domain plus some improvements Difficulty way easier than its reputation, but does demand your full attention for a while Time 30 min Serves 3–4 as a side dish; 2 as a main dish with some salad or vegetables on the side
- 4 shallots or 2 regular-sized onions
- 1–2 tbsp clarified butter or olive oil
- 250 g plain risotto rice (e.g., Arborio)
- 150 ml prosecco or other sparkling white wine
- 1 l hot vegetable broth
- grated Gruyère cheese
- (optional: black pepper)
Use a kind of rice that specifically says «Risotto» on the packaging. You can also look for the names of popular risotto rice varieties, such as «Arborio» or «Carnaroli». These varieties have short grains that release starch and absorb water when cooked, resulting in the desired rich, creamy texture — regular Uncle Ben’s just won’t do (and don’t you even think of Basmati!). Also, for the purpose of this recipe, stay away from pre-cooked rice, risotto mixes that contain other things than rice, or even «instant risotto» preparations like Rice-a-Roni. ;o)
See this post about clarified butter.
Traditional recipes use regular white wine instead of sparkling wine; feel free to follow that prescription. I imagine the sweeter, lighter taste of sparkling wine may improve the risotto, but frankly I doubt I could tell the difference in a blind test. The main reason I use prosecco is that I’ll have the rest of the bottle available for making delicious Veneziani…
Vegetable stock cubes can vary greatly in taste. The cheapest ones are mostly salt. Get a broth whose taste you like. If you don’t care to keep the risotto vegetarian, beef or chicken broth will also work very well.
If you have access to Swiss cheese, I heartily recommend Gruyère. It may be called Greyerzer or Graviera depending on where you buy it. In the Netherlands, we make do with Dutch cheese (Gouda, Jong Belegen), which works well too. The recipe should work with almost any kind of grated cheese, though (or solid cheese that you grate yourself). Be aware that some cheeses (like Parmesan) are very salty; don’t overdo it with those.
To avoid hassles later, make sure all ingredients are within reach and ready for use when you start. Prepare at least a liter of piping hot water in the water boiler. If your prosecco comes with a complicated champagne-style cork, it may be wise to open it beforehand, too, since you might need it rather urgently all of a sudden. Peel the shallots, chop them finely, and toss them in your cooking pan with the clarified butter. One tablespoon of butter is certainly sufficient for a delicious risotto, but if you don’t care for the calories, use two for easier sautéing.
Turn the heat up to maximum, and as soon as you hear the first sizzling, back down to a 3–4 out of 10. Push the shallots around with a turner or long spoon to make sure they don’t get stuck to the bottom. They should turn glassy, yellowish, and fragrant; if you see dark brown edges, you’re probably using too much heat.
After a few minutes, add in the risotto rice and stir. This will turn the rice grains greasy and glassy. Since this also dries up your pan considerably, you’ll have to stir constantly to make sure nothing gets stuck to the pan and burns. You will probably find yourself losing this race gradually, with brownish traces building up on the bottom of the pan. Don’t worry, that’s normal, as long as nothing turns black or smokes. If you used that second tablespoon of clarified butter, you’ll have a much easier time at this. After a minute or so — or earlier, if you find the race too stressful —, defuse the situation by pouring in half of the prosecco (about 75 ml). Give it a stir to make sure the whole bottom of the pan is wet and no rice grains remain stuck to it.
The rest of the recipe is mostly just stirring and patience. The wine is going to be absorbed and boiled off quickly, so be ready to replace it with hot broth. Add the broth one cup at a time, and wait for the liquid to be used up before adding more. It’s not necessary to prepare the broth ahead of time; just toss a cup of water and the appropriate amount of stock (typically half a cube) directly into the risotto. Stir well when you add new liquid, stir frequently in between, and never just let it sit around on its own too long. Make sure the stock cubes dissolve completely. The more you stir, the creamier the risotto will get. Keep it gently boiling at all times.
The risotto is done when the rice grains are pleasantly chewy (al dente), neither undercooked (hard in the center) nor overcooked (bloated and falling apart). You might need more or less than one liter of water, depending on how much you’re losing to evaporation. Do not change the amount of stock, though. The consistency should be pretty fluid, but not liquid.
Once the rice is done, take the pan off the heat and stir in two handfuls of grated Gruyère or Gouda. If you like add some freshly ground black pepper. Now for the secret ingredient: Gently pour in the remaining half of the prosecco and fold it into the risotto as well. This will freshen up the wine taste that will have dulled after all the cooking. Put a lid on the pan and leave it to rest for a few minutes before serving. Eat it fresh — it will continue to soften if you leave it in the hot pan for long.
Some of the countless great combinations of vegetables, herbs, and spices that can be added to risotto will be covered in future posts.
Note, however, that this version is already a slight variation on the traditional risotto recipe: Quite a few shallots instead of one small onion, prosecco instead of white wine, Gruyère/Gouda instead of parmesan, and the final touch of fresh wine at the end. Traditional recipes also add diced cold butter in the end for extra sinful creaminess, which you’re welcome to do; I personally prefer to use a creamier cheese than parmesan to begin with, and just add more of it. ;o)
Also try out beef or chicken broth if you don’t need it to be vegetarian.