Risotto is a rice dish prepared al dente (not crunchy, but firm grains) with a unique smooth and creamy texture and consistency of firm rice grains bound in its velvety sauce, making it far unlike any other rice dish in the world. The major components of this unique Italian dish are a particular kind of short grain rice, broth, and other flavoring ingredients, but to make extraordinary risotto you must know how each ingredient works together to prepare it perfectly and how to use the "extra" flavoring ingredients. We will start out with what the major components of risotto are, including choosing the ingredients that will be best suited to fit your personal needs, and end with a few of the different techniques that can be used to prepare this dish, and of course, some recipes will follow.
Rice: The most important ingredient in this dish is obviously rice, but with risotto, only a few specific types of rice can be used. Only certain strains of short grain rice can be used because it has the highest content of the glutinous starch, which is what produces the creamy texture associated with traditional risotto. The most popular strain used is the Italian-grown Arborio rice, which is a strain that's widely available in most areas. Other strains of short grain rice that can be used are Vialone, Carnaroli, and Baldo rice, which can be used interchangeably for Arborio in risotto recipes. All these rices have subtle differences in grain size, cooking time, and texture, so if you desire, you can test all of these to find your personal favorite. Although it's best to stick with the Italian-grown rice, if you're unable to find any of the above varieties you can substitute with American short-grain rice, California-grown Arborio rice, or "pearl" rice.
Broth: Because it adds more to risotto's taste than anything else, it's very important that you use a very well-flavored and seasoned (but NOT too salty or overpowering) broth. Depending on what extra ingredients (see below) you're going to add to your risotto, you can use broths made with vegetables, chicken, meat, fish, or shellfish. It's obviously best to make your own fresh broth, but it's understood that many people won't do that, so instead of using water you can still use well-diluted instant bouillon cubes, or a low-sodium canned broth in its place.
Oil: A small amount of oil is always used in the first part of making risotto, and the best oil used for this, because of its unique and excellent flavors, is an extra-virgin olive oil. Other oils, such as canola oil, can be used in its place, but will not add any flavor to your risotto like olive oil would.
Butter: The oil is used for the first part of making risotto, but to enhance the flavor and creaminess of risotto, a bit of unsalted butter is usually added right before the serving of it. For those who are trying to make a little lower-fat version of risotto, this (although not recommended) can be removed in part or whole from the recipe.
Cheese: The most popular cheese used in risotto is the Italian parmigiano-reggiano (otherwise known as "parmesan"). This is almost always stirred in or sprinkled on top of the risotto right before it's served to the customer, again adding to that richness and creaminess of the dish. Other cheeses can be mixed or substituted with this also, like mozzarella, goat cheese, or any of your other favorite cheeses. As in all cooking, just keep trying new things with it every time you make it and eventually you'll find your favorite.
Other: Here is where your imagination comes in. All the previous ingredients are included in almost every risotto you'll find, but to make it all the more special you can add your own touch to the dish. The list goes on and on, but I'll list a few to get you thinking: mushrooms, saffron, chopped fresh herbs, spinach, grilled vegetables, and sun-dried tomatoes. Meat, fish, and poultry are excellent additions to risotto as are lobster, quail, shrimp, sausage, etc. You can even make sweet risotto with fruit, which would be good for a breakfast side dish or an accompaniment to a dessert. Almost all these ingredients can be precooked, and can be added on top of or stirred into the risotto right before serving. One of the few exceptions to that would be certain kinds of seafood, which can be added at different points of the cooking process to be finished at the same time as the risotto if you're confident you can do so without overcooking the seafood.
Now that you know all about what ingredients can go into your risotto, I'll explain a few different methods of preparing the dish itself, which is a fairly easy one to make and perfect. The first technique covered will be in how to prepare the classic version of risotto. From there, we'll go into a few variations of that, including the restaurant technique.
Classic Risotto: This method, if prepared properly, will produce the best, creamiest risotto out of all the techniques. The recipe itself for this method is included below, but basically it is simply sauteing the onion, adding the rice and briefly sauteing it, adding the wine, then the broth 1/2 cup (118 ml) at a time, and letting the rice absorb all the liquid after each addition. Then at the very end, adding the remaining 1/4 cup (59 ml) broth, the butter, cheese, salt and pepper, and your added ingredients, stirring and serving immediately. To tell when the risotto is finished, you must taste it, as cooking time alone may not necessarily tell you. Make sure the rice is still al dente, and at the same time has a nice overall creamy texture. And as with all methods, whatever you do, don't overcook it or you'll lose the rice and have just one batch of (a very flavorful) rice puree. The risotto may be done with less liquid than the recipe calls for, or it may require more liquid as well to come to the perfect risotto consistency. Okay, so now you may be wondering...why use any other method if this is the best?...but since this method requires that you stir it almost constantly with so many additions of liquid, you might prefer one of the other methods that takes less time and effort.
One Cup Method: This method requires that, instead of adding 1/2 cup (118 ml) of broth at a time, you add a full 1 cup (236 ml) of broth at a time. This method is a lot easier than the one above because you only make half the number of additions of liquid as the classic method, and you only have to stir it about half as much, too. The total amount of broth used in this recipe may be 1/2 cup (118 ml) to 1 cup (236 ml) less than the classic method also.
Restaurant Risotto: For larger restaurants, this technique might be the only method you can use due to time constraints. To make this, you don't completely finish cooking the risotto, and when the rice is still a bit crunchy, but close to being done, you spread the risotto on a sheet pan and put it in the refrigerator to cool it quickly, stopping the rice from softening. Now you'll have risotto that can last over the next 2-3 days that can be pulled out in whatever portions are needed and after about 5 more minutes of cooking will be finished. And just like the other methods, only at the end do you add the butter, cheese, seasonings, and other flavoring ingredients. We currently have risotto on the menu in the French restaurant I work in but we do not use this method. As mentioned above, the classic version is the best, so that's what method we use every day to best serve our customers.
Pressure Cooker and Microwave Risotto: These two methods do exist, but since most professional kitchens won't be using these, I'm not going into detail here on how to make them. If you'd still like their descriptions, please ask for them in CCF's message boards (link below).
Risotto Cakes: Another form of the finished product you can make, instead of creamy risotto, is risotto cakes. To make these, make risotto in any of the above fashions (with saffron if you'd like), cooking it a little bit drier than usual, and when it's finished cooking, refrigerate it. After refrigeration, the risotto will be very firm, at which point you can take some and form it into risotto cakes with your hands. Then, using a very small amount of a half-butter, half-oil mixture, pan-fry the cakes. Once finished, you generally want to serve them with a sauce of your choice.