Relax, It's Just Risotto
Risotto: The Basic Technique
Here are the basic steps for making risotto, and following is a recipe for Shrimp Risotto with specific measurements and steps. Read through the technique, then read through the recipe, then get cooking. Once you get this first risotto recipe under your belt, you will be able to tackle any risotto recipe that piques your fancy, or even improvise your own risotto in a galaxy not too far away. Pinkie promise.
Photography by Laura Agra
Get the Recipe: Shrimp Risotto
First, What Rice to Use?
You need to use a starchy short-grain rice to make a proper risotto, and Italy produces lots of them. Arborio, from the Po Valley of Italy, is the most common, available at many supermarkets. Carnaroli, which has a slightly longer grain and even higher starch content, and Vialone Nano are two other varieties that are often available and desired. Why these varieties? The quick definition of a good risotto rice is a grain that has a generous amount of starch, which does two somewhat disparate things: Some starch keeps the grains firm so that they stay al dente, and some dissolves in the cooking process and helps bind the grains together. Different varieties have more or less of these kinds of starch, but we won’t get hung up on that.
Warm the broth in a saucepan, just until barely at a simmer. Warming the broth allows the rice to absorb it more evenly and quickly.
In a large, heavy Dutch oven or stockpot, heat some oil or melt some butter. Saute some chopped member of the onion family in the pan (a base of sauteed onions, shallots, garlic, etc. adds depth of flavor to risottos, and to most every awesome savory dish on the planet).
Add the rice to the pot and stir occasionally for a minute or two so that each grain is well coated.
Add some liquid to start things off: If you are so inclined, add a generous splash of wine. Choose a wine that matches the flavors of the dish (don't think too hard about this, but if you are doing a rich mushroom risotto with beef broth you will lean toward a red, while a seafood risotto with chicken broth will call more for a dry white). Stir, and let the wine absorb and evaporate; the alcohol will cook off.
Then add broth by the ladleful, slowly, as you stir frequently. Start with a good cup of broth, and stir frequently until the liquid is almost all absorbed, then add about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring frequently (yes, you can walk away for a minute and chop some lettuce for a salad or tell your kids to set the table). There should always be some liquid visible in the pan as you are stirring, and the small amount of liquid should be at a slow, steady simmer at all times. Adjust the heat accordingly. The slow addition of liquid helps the starch turn into a binding sauce, and the stirring helps the starch transfer from the rice into the liquid, everything coming together into a creamy, soulful dish. If you add too much liquid at once, the rice will stew; the result might taste good, but it will not have the creamy texture of risotto.
The rest of the process of adding liquid and stirring will take about 18 to 24 minutes, until the rice is al dente and the whole thing is creamy and fabulous. Along the way, other ingredients may be added. Ingredients that take longer to cook get added earlier (for instance, cubed uncooked chicken would be added about 8 to 10 minutes into the process, bay scallops would be added about 3 minutes before you think the rice will be done to your liking, and fresh herbs would go in at the very end).
At the end, a bit of butter and often some cheese (traditionally Parmesan) is stirred in for a rich and creamy finish.
You don’t want the rice to be too soft; it should be al dente, tender and yet still firm to the bite, when it comes off the stove, as it will continue to cook in its own heat. Also, when you take it off the heat, make sure it's a little more liquid-y than you want it to be at the time of eating, because even thought you will (and should) serve it up right away, the rice will continue to absorb the liquid even as you scoop it into serving plates, and it will thicken up a bit more. Some regions of Italy serve thicker, scoopable versions of risotto, some much looser, even pourable. In Venice they call the ideal texture all'onda, which means “flowing in waves,” possibly the most romantic and expressive culinary description ever. You decide what thickness appeals to you.
Serve quickly. As risotto sets, the starches further develop, and the risotto will become thicker and possibly clumpy.