Risotto: A Rice Story

By: Kirsten Vala
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Stirring, ladling, stirring, ladling, tasting, stirring, second-guessing, ladling. . . Making the perfect risotto is a labor of love best undertaken with backup – your sweetheart, a friend or even an unsuspecting dinner guest with a strong arm will do. Because no matter what happens, if the salad needs mixing, the fish needs roasting, the cat’s tail catches fire, that risotto must be stirred and observed, with ladleful after ladleful of stock gradually added to the rice, for 17 to 30 minutes. This makes it both a bother and the most amazingly social, make-together dish imaginable, perfect for an intimate dinner for two (for Valentine's Day!) or a small, friends-in-the-kitchen dinner party.

The magic of risotto is the alluring creaminess that emerges from the combination of just rice, broth and a little (okay, a lot of) stirring. I consulted Made In Italy: Food & Stories, by Giorgio Locatelli, and it turns out the starches are key to risotto's unique texture. The rice contains two contrasting types of starch: soft amylopectin on the surface, which rubs off and gets reabsorbed by the rice, making risotto creamy, and firmer amylase inside the rice grains, which maintains the shape and keeps the cooked rice al dente, or firm to the bite.

Although most people associate risotto with arborio rice, there are actually three grades of risotto rice (from smallest to largest, semifino, fino and superfino) and several different varieties, the most common being arborio, carnaroli and vialone nano. How do you decide which to use? The main difference is the amount of each starch in each rice, the soft creamy kind vs. the firmer starch, so you should choose a rice to match your personal preference and the type of risotto you’re making.

Arborio: The rice most commonly used for risotto, arborio has the highest amount of soft surface starch, amylopectin, so it makes super creamy risotto. It also has a tendency to lose its shape a bit during cooking and can become sticky.

Carnaroli: With more equal amounts of the two starches, amylopectin and amylase, carnaroli rice becomes creamy when cooked but holds its shape better than arborio rice. With its good balance and thin long grains, it’s recommended for simple, elegant risottos, with few mix-ins.

Vialone Nano: The toughest of the three rices, vialone nano has round, thick grains and the most amount of the inner starch, amylase. Use it for risottos with lots of hearty mix-ins, since the sturdy grains can stand up to extra stirring.

I picked up some carnaroli rice at Mario’s new New York City Italian market, Eataly, and used Jamie Oliver as a guide to stir up a pot of in-season mushroom risotto. If you feel like mixing up a pot yourself, flip through my step-by-step guide for a few tips and risotto-making techniques.

More risotto recipes to get you stirring like a pro:

Risotto leftovers? When risotto is cooked, it's ready to eat right away, and never as good re-heated. Unless. . . You fry up some risotto balls, or Arancini.

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