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I won’t lie. When Emily told me that the Daring Baker challenge for March was to cook risotto, I was a bit ‘meh’. Risotto is something that we have cooked a fair bit of over the years, and I feel that we are across the issues with this dish. Then, I thought a little more. How arrogant of me to assume that I know it all. Isn’t there always something more that everyone can learn?

I resolved to do a little extra homework, which involved me combing thorough a stack of Italian cookbooks and websites. Here follows: exhaustive tips and a recipe for, dare I say it, the perfect (vegetarian) risotto.

Everything I now know about perfect risotto:

This information was gleaned from: Marcella Hazan in The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking; the ‘Masterclass’ section in the May 2009 Gourmet Traveller; Neil Perry in The Food I Love; ‘The Perfect Risotto’ from the Essential Ingredient website; and Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers in the River Café Cook Book Two.

All in all, there are seven elements to ‘the perfect risotto’: the rice; the stock; the pan; the soffritto; the flavours; the creation; and the polish. (And of course, the eighth stage of ‘the eating’.)

The rice

  • Risotto is an Italian rice dish, which is characterised by rice that, when appropriately cooked, is creamy on the outside while remaining firm yet tender on the inside. The creaminess binds the rice kernels and fuses them with the flavourings.
  • There are three main types of risotto rice: Arborio, Carnaroli and Vialone Nano. All three have a firm starch on the inside that is encased by a softer, dissolving starch on the outside. The type of rice that you choose to use depends on the type of risotto that you choose to make.
  • There are two basic types of risotto. One is the thicker style of Lombardy, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna, which is more suited to robust flavourings such as meat or mushroom. The other is the thinner, more liquid, version that is made in the Veneto. This version is more compatible with delicate flavourings such as seafood and spring vegetables.
  • Arborio is well-matched to thicker styles of risotto, as it has a high amount of  the soft dissolving starch. However, it is easily overcooked and can become sticky. It is especially suited to extra creamy dessert risottos, such as sweet vanilla or pudding.
  • Vialone Nano is better suited to the thinner Venetian style of risotto. It remains firmer than Arborio when it is cooked and, according to the packet, has a ‘distinctly herbaceous’ flavour.
  • Carnaroli is, according to Hazan, ‘unquestionably the most excellent of the three’ rices. It has more firm starch than both Arborio and Vialone Nano, which means that it is less easily overcooked. It also contains enough dissolving starch for it to become creamy, but not so much that it will become sticky.
  • Allow 50g of rice per person for entree; and 75g of rice per person for main.
  • Do not wash the rice before cooking. It needs to retain its starchiness.

The stock

  • A good stock is all important because it will contribute much to the final flavour of dish.
  • Hazan recommends using a mild broth-like stock. The cooking liquid will become more concentrated as it evaporates and so anything too strong will overpower the dish. Add water toward the end if you feel that the stock is becoming too dominant.
  • The stock should be added to the rice while it is hot, so that it does not reduce the cooking temperature. Maintain a warm stock by sitting it in a separate saucepan on the stove, keeping it just below simmering point. Keep an eye on it; if the stock is too hot it will boil away. (Update: Our Alaskan friend has suggested that the wine should also be heated before adding – this makes much sense.)
  • Allow about 1 litre of stock for every 300g of rice (depending on how much liquid is in your flavourings, and how absorbent your rice is, and how much liquid evaporates…).

The pan

  • Use a large, wide, heavy-based pan. The pan needs to be large because the rice can expand to three times its size and needs room to move. The width will allow more rice to maintain contact with the heat and the liquid. It will also prevent rice getting lost at the bottom of the pan. Finally, any pans that are too thin will transfer heat too quickly and could scorch the rice.

The soffritto

  • Traditionally, the foundation of risotto is onion sautéed in butter. Some recipes call for leek instead or also call for garlic. Some call for these to be sautéed in oil; some call for these to be sautéed in both butter and oil. I suggest using both butter (for flavour) and oil (for health and to avoid burning).
  • Cook the onion slowly for about 5-10 minutes on a low-medium heat, until it is soft and without colour.

The flavours

  • Risotto is very versatile and you can flavour it with pretty much whatever you like.
  • Some common combinations are: wild mushroom; pumpkin; pea or spinach and pancetta; asparagus; zucchini; Milanese style with saffron and osso-buco; Tomato and basil; truffle; lemon and herbs; squid ink and octopus…
  • Add the flavours as early as possible during the cooking process so that they can be absorbed into the rice.
  • Anything that needs to be protected from overcooking can have its juices extracted first and added. (For example, mussels juice or the blanching water of vegetables.)
  • If the flavours need browning (such as sausages or mushrooms), you can add them at the same time as the soffritto.

The creation

  • The key to achieving a perfect consistency is to stir continuously, and to add the stock incrementally, ensuring that it evaporates and absorbs after each addition. This does sound like a bit of work, but I recommend just standing there sipping a glass of vino while you stir away. Chat to your mates if they’re nearby. It can be quite meditative!
  • After making the soffritto, add the rice. Stir the grains to coat in oil and toast. This ensures uniform cooking. Hazan instructs to stir the rice ‘quickly and thoroughly until well coated’.
  • Change the temperature to medium-high. You need to maintain a balance so that the stock evaporates a little but not too much, and the rice does not stick.
  • First, add a ladleful of wine. The wine should be warmed before adding so that it doesn’t reduce the temperature of the rice. Wait until it is fully absorbed and evaporated before adding more liquid.
  • Keep stirring the whole time to break down the starches…
  • Add the stock ladleful by ladleful. Wait until each is absorbed and evaporated before adding more.
  • Keep the rice moist. If it is too wet it will become sloppy. If it is too dry it will not achieve its creaminess.
  • After about 15 minutes, add a little less liquid in each ladleful. Monitor the consistency of the rice. The final result should be creamy on the outside, yet firm but tender on the inside. The risotto will be ready somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes, depending on the variety of rice and your preferred consistency.
  • Vialone Nano is smaller and absorbs less stock, so it will be faster to cook. Carnaroli will absorb more stock, so it will take longer to cook.
  • If making the thinner Venetian style, you do not need to evaporate all the stock. If making the thicker style, evaporate all the stock.

The polish

  • When the risotto is cooked to your preference, remove it from the heat.
  • Stir through a knob of butter and a few tablespoons of parmesan. This contributes to creaminess to taste.
  • Cover the pot for a few minutes. This will help absorb any last liquid.
  • Add salt and pepper, to taste.
  • Garnish with herbs and parmesan shavings, and serve.
  • Enjoy.

Our version:

As I mentioned earlier, risotto was set as the Daring Cooks’ challenge for this month.

The 2010 March Daring Cooks challenge was hosted by Eleanor of MelbournefoodGeek and Jess of Jessthebaker. They chose to challenge Daring Cooks to make risotto. The various components of their challenge recipe are based on input from the Australian Masterchef cookbook and the cookbook Moorish by Greg Malouf.

We were required to make our own stock, and (of course) our own risotto. We made a vegetable stock because I’m (more or less) vegetarian. We made a pumpkin risotto because there were pumpkins at the vegetable shop. We didn’t follow the Masterchef or Malouf recipes (sorry!).

Vegetable stock

I made a version that was based on Stephanie’s Cook’s Companion vegetable stock. You can vary this depending on what vegetables are available. This recipe makes about 3 litres. I like to freeze what I do not use in 500mL containers. In winter, I go through litres of this stuff with all the comfort-food making. Expect to see it featured frequently over the coming months!

3 onions, 2 diced and 1 halved
2 tomatoes, halved
4 tablespoons olive oil
6 cloves garlic, peeled
2 leeks, sliced
2 carrots, sliced
2 stalks celery, sliced
A small handful of dried mushrooms
6 peppercorns
A couple of parsley stalks
A couple of thyme sprigs
10cm kombu (optional)
4 litres cold water

  • Cut one onion and both tomatoes in half and place them on a baking tray. Drizzle them with about one tablespoon of oil. Place under a medium-high grill and cook until they are blackened.

  • Roughly chop the remaining vegetables. They do not need to be neat or small. Warm the remaining oil in a stockpot. Sweat the rest of the vegetables (onions, garlic, leek, carrots and celery) on a medium heat for about five minutes.

  • Add the water and remaining ingredients (mushrooms, peppercorns, parsley, thyme and kombu). Bring slowly to a simmer.

  • Simmer for 3 hours. Drain through a colander, pressing on the vegetables to extract all the juices.
  • Let the stock cool and place in the fridge. This keeps in the fridge for a couple of days, or it can be frozen.

Pumpkin and thyme risotto

Serves 5-6 people.

1.5kg pumpkin, cut into chunks (we used Jap)
Small bunch thyme
Olive oil
2 small onions
4 cloves garlic
400g Carnaroli rice
100ml white wine
800ml vegetable stock
35g pine nuts, lightly toasted (roasted pumpkin seeds would also work)
75g parmesan, grated, plus some extra to garnish
50g butter, in small cubes
Salt and pepper, to taste

  • Preheat the oven to 180°C. Cut the pumpkin into about 2cm cubes with the skin on. Place in a baking tray, skin side down. Sprinkle over thyme leaves and drizzle with olive oil. Put pumpkin in oven and cook for about 45 minutes, or until the pumpkin begins to brown at the edges.
  • Lightly toast the pine nuts in a dry saucepan. Do not let them brown too much as they will continue cooking after you take them off the heat.
  • Take the pumpkin out of the oven and let it cool a little so that you can touch it. Discard the pumpkin skin. Mash about half of the pumpkin and leave the other half in chunks.

  • Warm the stock on the stove to just below simmering point. Keep it at that temperature.
  • Gently sauté the onion and garlic for about 10 minutes, until it is soft and uncoloured.

  • Add the rice and stir quickly until the rice is toasted and coated in oil.
  • On a medium-high heat, add a ladleful of warmed white wine. Stir continuously.
  • When the wine is fully absorbed, add a ladleful of stock. Continue to stir. When the stock is fully absorbed, add another ladleful of stock. Be careful not to let the rice get too dry or too wet. Continue adding the stock ladle by ladle.

  • After about 10 minutes, add the mashed half of the pumpkin and thyme so that the flavours  can absorb into the rice a little. Add the pumpkin slowly as quite a lot of liquid will come out of it. For this reason, you may not need to add much stock during this stage.
  • After about 15 minutes, taste the rice. It should be firm yet tender in the middle. It should be creamy on the outside. If it is still too hard and chalky on the inside, keep adding small ladlefuls of stock. Use warm water if the stock runs out. Add smaller ladlefuls of stock as the risotto nears completion.
  • When the risotto is ready, take it off the heat. Stir though the parmesan and knobs of butter, and put the lid on for a few minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
  • Add the remaining pumpkin chunks and pine nuts. Do not stir too much to avoid the pumpkin chunks breaking up and becoming mushy.
  • Garnish with parmesan shavings and a few soft thyme leaves. Serve and eat. (We also garnished with some snow peas, which gave a lovely fresh crunch.)

If I may say so myself, it was my best risotto ever.

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20 Responses to “The quest for…il risotto perfetto”

  1. From your description I’m sure it was your best risotto ever. I absolutely love your tips and hints so thoughtful of you to do all that research you have so many good points. And the colour is amazing and I bet was delicious. Thank you for the veggie stock recipe. A very well thought out posting. Superb work on this challenge and great to hear that your risotto is good now. Cheers from Audax in Sydney Australia.

    • Saskia says:

      Thanks Audax. I guess doing all that research was a bit of a labour of love.

      I’m always inspired by the dedication that you put in to challenges!

  2. Jenn says:

    wow what a comprehensive post on risotto! and I am loving your pumpkin risotto, I love using various squashes in mine – beautiful job!

    • Saskia says:

      Yes, I think pumpkin and its cousins are the king flavours of risotto! (Though mushroom probably runs a close second.)

  3. Shelley says:

    Wow. That looks amazing, and you really put a lot of work into this challenge. Seriously wonderful, thorough job on this challenge!!

    • Saskia says:

      Thanks Shelley. This post did turn out to be quite epic! I was meant to be doing some university work and the length of this post probably has something to do with my procrastination skills!!

  4. ap269 says:

    It was very interesting to read all those facts, especially about the three kinds of risotto rice. Thanks for this write-up. Good job on the challenge.

    • Saskia says:

      Thanks. Yes – I had no idea about all the different kinds of rice before this challenge, either. Rice isn’t just rice!!

  5. Great idea making this a vegetarian risotto, it’s a great standby for vegetarian friends and family and meat eaters seem to love it too! 🙂

  6. chef_d says:

    thank you for all that information, i used carnaroli too. i was disappointed there was no arborio rice but now i dont feel so bad. your risotto looks gorgeous 🙂

    • Saskia says:

      Don’t feel bad! As stated above – apparently carnaroli is the king! Wouldn’t be fun to do a test of all the different varieties to see which one would win?!

  7. CHConrad says:

    Beautiful results! Looks like the research paid off. I appreciated reading through all of your tips and next time I think I will seek out the carnaroli rice to give that a try.

    • Saskia says:

      Thanks! Marcella Hazan did say carnaroli was the best. Though it is interesting how the different rices are suited to different types of risotto. I’m pretty keen to make a dessert version next, which it seems arborio is best for.

  8. jo says:

    Great job on your challenge and thanks for the tips. Your risotto looks delicious. I didn’t use arborio rice because it was way too expensive so instead I used short-grain.

    • Saskia says:

      Thanks Jo! Some of the Italian rices can be quite expensive (especially compared to other rice) though I found that they go a long way since only 50-75g is needed per person. Luckily here in Melbourne there is a big Italian community so there is a lot of rice to choose from…

  9. climbhighak says:

    I think this is the most technically correct post yet. You have put into words all in one place knowledge that many cooks will never aquire in a lifetime.

    Two things I might suggest. Make sure the wine is also hot before adding for the same reasons you heat the stock. Roasted pumpkin seeds are an incredible garnish for any dish with pumpkin. That crunch provides such a wonderful contrast to the creaminess of risotto.

    • Saskia says:

      Thanks! I did put a fair bit of effort into this – I can be a bit obsessive at times!

      I will update the post as per your suggestions. I was wondering whether the wine should be warm or not – none of the books that I looked at suggested it though it makes sense if you are going to bother heating the stock.

      If anyone else out there has any suggestions – please let me know!

  10. Georgia Wilson says:

    hey Sas,
    I hope you don’t mind but i am going to use you risotto recipe for my dinner party. I thought it was very, very nice and i look forward to eating it again. 🙂 georgie

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