Hello, Katten, and welcome back!
I'm delighted to tackle this particular question. I'm a cook in a
widely respected restaurant here in Alberta, Canada (where one or
another risotto is almost always on the menu) and I've been making
risottos at home for years, as well.
I love risotto because it's one of those wonderful "comfort food"
classics which may be served for any company, any occasion, by simply
varying the ingredients. I'm happy to tell you that it's not as fussy
and intricate to make as many people think. There are some simple
steps to follow (most of which, evidently, you already know) to assure
good results; aside from that experience is, as always, the best
I'm going to begin my answer with a discussion "the science of
risotto", as you put it. From there I'll move into a brief
explanation of the necessary equipment, then ingredients, then
methodology. I'll wrap up with links to several sites which discuss
risotto and/or provide recipes. As an experienced risotto maker, much
of this will be old news to you, but I'm also thinking of the many
others who may read this, here on the site. Also, there are a few
details which are best discussed in context.
Perfect risotto, as you know, comes to the plate in a thick, creamy
puddle. The individual grains should be separate and distinct, not
broken up or mashed, and the sauce should be thick and creamy without
being stiff or pasty. This combination of textures - the tender but
firm rice in a creamy sauce - derives from a combination of starches
found in the rice.
All grains contain large quantities of starch, and rice is no
exception. The two starches we are concerned with, in this
discussion, are called "amylopectin" and "amylose". Amylopectin is a
readily-soluble substance, which detaches from the rice during cooking
to create the creamy sauce. Amylose is the harder starch which forms
most of the body of the individual grain of rice. Rather than
dissolving (ie, absorbing into the water) amylose absorbs water into
its cells, becoming tender but retaining a firm and chewy texture. It
is the interplay of these two starches, and their balance in the
grain, that creates the unique and wonderful texture we appreciate in
This is why risotto cannot be successfully made with just any rice.
Of course you can fake it - long-grain rice in a cream soup is a
common dodge - but it's just not the same. Rices contain varying
ratios of amylopectin to amylose, and most are simply not suitable.
The desired combination is a generous outer coating of amylopectin,
and a solid core of amylose.
There are three types of rice primarily used for risotto. Arborio is
by far the most widely used, and the easiest to find in North America
(a number of American growers are now bringing arborio to market). In
risotto's northern Italian homeland, other rices are also popular.
Carnaroli, the most expensive of the arborio rices, is preferred in
Liguria for its delicate texture (a uniquely firm and tender grain
when properly cooked); while cooks in the Veneto prefer vialone nano
for its remarkable creaminess. After reading the above, this will
tell you that carnaroli leans more to amylose, while vialone nano
leans more to amylopectin.
All of these rices will make wonderful risotto. If you have the
option, of course, you may wish to match your favourite recipes with
the rice that is most widely used in the corresponding region.
As for your question about the IV drip (I haven't forgotten) I'll get
to that later.
There are only a couple of simple implements necessary to the making
of risotto. The most important (after your source of heat, at any
rate) is a heavy, flat-bottomed pot or pan. Many people cook in
lightweight non-stick pots and pans, and these are simply not suitable
for cooking risotto. A heavy-bottomed pan distributes heat gently and
evenly, without any hotspots that will make your risotto stick and
scorch. Copper and aluminum pots have been used for years because of
their excellent conductivity, but today of course we know that both of
these metals may raise health-related questions. Both metals are
still widely used, but are frequently now sealed within a non-reactive
jacket of stainless steel, enamel, or porcelain. Cast iron is also a
good choice, though it should be avoided if your risotto will contain
acidic ingredients such as wine or tomatoes. French cookware
manufacturer Le Creuset makes a wonderful line of porcelain-coated
cast iron utensils, which would be perfect.
Personally, I use a professional-grade stainless-steel pot from
Canadian manufacturer Paderno.
It is important to remember that your rice will triple in size as you
cook, so your chosen pot must have enough room to contain the rice and
still leave you space to stir.
Risotto requires a great deal of stirring, and the implement you
choose to stir with is one of the key details to successful risotto.
Metal spoons should be avoided, as they break up the grains of rice,
and whisks are not sturdy enough to be effective. Traditionally, a
wooden spoon or paddle is the weapon of choice. Today, however, we
have an even better alternative in the heatproof silicon spatula.
These are perfect for risotto, as they will pick up the grains from
the bottom of the pot without breaking them. For anyone who cooks a
lot, one or two of these spatulas will be a welcome addition to the
This is where things get interesting. If you spend a lot of time
looking at recipes, as I do (occupational hazard) you will find that
the methodology of making risotto varies from chef to chef. Having
said that, however, you'll find that the differences tend to be minor
and that there is a pretty good consensus on the important points.
When making risotto at home, it is important to gauge your cooking
time properly. Risotto is best when it goes from the stovetop to the
plate with only a short rest in between. If it sits for any length of
time it will continue to cook, and the end result will be thick and
stodgy. If you plan to eat at 5:30, don't start your risotto any
earlier than 5:00. Restaurants deal with this difficulty by
partially-cooking the risotto, cooling it rapidly, and then finishing
it to order as needed. There are a variety of ingenious techniques
for doing this, but I'm not going to touch on that since it's largely
extraneous to our discussion.
Begin by sauteeing your aromatics (onions, shallots, garlic, celery
etc as specified in your recipe) in a little bit of butter or olive
oil. If you want the flavour of butter with fewer calories, add just
a bit of butter to your olive oil. If you live in an area with lots
of Italian shops or gourmet shops, you may wish to experiment with
different types of extra-virgin olive oil. The flavours vary
remarkably, and regional dishes are always best if made with the olive
oil (and wine) of the region.
When your onions are cooked enough to be translucent, add your rice
and toast it gently for a few minutes. Stir throughout the toasting
process to ensure that all of the grains are heated evenly, and that
they have an even coating of the cooking oil. This doesn't take long,
only three or four minutes. The grain should not get browned.
This is a very important step in the process. The "toasting", by
heating the outer coat of amylopectin and giving it a water-resistant
film of oil, creates a delay before the amylopectin begins to dissolve
into the cooking liquid. This is where the portioning of cooking
liquid becomes important. The initial addition of liquid is intended
to do the bulk of the cooking, leaving the centre of the grains
almost-but-not-quite al dente. The remaining additions of liquid (in
ever-smaller increments) create the sauce, as the now-cooked
amylopectin layers dissolve into the liquid. However, I've gotten
ahead of myself. To resume the narrative...
Add your first quantity of liquid. If wine is called for in your
recipe, it should be added first. This allows the alcohol to cook out
quickly, leaving behind only the flavour. Use a good-quality wine,
ideally the same that will be served with the meal. Once the wine has
evaporated/absorbed, begin adding the stock. Your pot should be at a
constant, moderate heat throughout. The liquids should just simmer
gently as you stir.
Stock should always be heated when you add it to the risotto; ideally
at a low simmer or just below a simmer. If your stock is cold, the
rice will not cook properly...a frequent source of frustration for
inexperienced cooks. As you'd guessed in your question, a certain
amount of evaporation does go on as you cook the risotto. This is a
good thing, as it helps to concentrate the flavours of the stock.
And while we're on the subject of stock: If you do not have homemade
stock, and are using canned broth or bouillon, there are a couple of
points to keep in mind. One is DON'T SALT THE RISOTTO! Second, it is
worth taking the time to improve the flavour of the canned broth by
adding it to some sauteed onions, celery and other herbs or aromatics.
In addition to imparting a better flavour, the vegetables will tone
down the highly-salted canned broth to a degree. Always be sure, of
course, that the additions you've made to the stock are appropriate to
As each addition of liquid is absorbed into the rice, add more. It is
important to do this in decreasing increments. If, for example, your
recipe calls for 4 cups of stock, your first addition of liquid might
have been 3/4 cup, the second 1/2 cup, and so on. This is because the
precise quantity of stock for a perfect result is hard to gauge;
different brands/ages/types of rice have somewhat different moisture
content. In the beginning, you are looking to cook the rice. Later,
you are attempting to arrive at a perfectly-textured sauce, which is a
little more exacting. Too much liquid will result in overcooked rice.
Begin tasting your rice after 12-15 minutes, depending on the size of
your recipe. By this time it should be 3/4 done...almost al dente,
but without (yet) much sauce. As you continue to add stock from this
point, you are watching for the sauce to arrive at a nice, creamy
consistency. When your rice is cooked through, and the sauce is just
slightly more liquid than you want, remove it from the heat. A good
guide to proper consistency is to coat your spatula or the back of
your spoon with the sauce, and then run your finger through it. The
sauce should not fill your finger mark (too thin) but should just
encroach on it slightly. Once you are satisfied that your rice is
cooked and the sauce is right, remove your pot from the heat. Add
your final quantity of butter/oil and cheese, and stir it in well.
Let the risotto sit for just a few minutes, so that the sauce will set
up to the proper degree and the flavours will have a chance to meld.
Risotto should come to the table "all' onda", flowing onto the plate
"like a wave". If it is loose and sloppy, you've added too much
liquid. If it is a pasty lump, you've added too little or overcooked
Most meats, vegetables and herbs may be used in risotto. Purists
advise using milder-flavoured ingredients in order to enjoy the
delicate flavour of the rice itself, though this of course is largely
a matter of personal taste.
Adding these ingredients ruled by common sense. Longer-cooking
ingredients should be added early (or those, like mushrooms, which add
a base of flavour to the risotto). Pre-cooked (ie, leftovers) or
quick-cooking ingredients (ie, shrimp) should be added late, as would
most herbs or fresh greens.
Variations on the theme
While the various Italian rices mentioned above are the best and most
common choices for risotto, they are not the only alternatives.
Barley, for example, also makes a very acceptable risotto (my
restaurant currently serves a barley risotto with fresh sage and
roasted onions to accompany a duck breast and quail dish). Any other
whole grain which appeals to you is also worth a try. Not all of them
will have a high enough percentage of amylopectin to create the proper
texture, but (an insider's "cheat") you may make up the difference by
adding rice-like orzo pasta to the mixture after the grain has cooked
Search strategy and resources
As you'll have guessed from the foregoing, a large portion of this
answer is derived from personal experience; both as a longtime lover
of risotto, and as a formally trained cook (gotta love those
I will recommend two books to you for further reading. For a detailed
and deeply fascinating discussion of starches, grains, and how they
cook, I strongly recommend Harold S. McGee's book "On Food and
Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen"; Scribner 1984; (see
ghastly long Amazon link below):
This amazing book delves into the science of food at every level, and
is a must-read for anyone interested in how and why food does what it
Another book you may want to read is "Risotto: Over 120 Healthy and
Delicious 'Little Rice' Recipes", by Jenny Stacey and Kathryn Hawkins;
Firefly Books 2000. For a review of this book, try the following
A Google search using the term "perfect risotto" unsurprisingly turned
up hundreds of hits. The following sites, returned by that search,
provide a wide range of further information and context. Some of this
material was used in preparation of the answer.
The official site of US rice growers has a great deal to say on the
(follow the links at the bottom of the page for other related
Chefs Micol Negrin, Gianni Scapin, and Luca Marcato offer these "tips
for the perfect risotto":
From the wine section of UK newspaper "The Telegraph" comes another
good page of info:
My favourite site, of the many I visited in preparing this answer, is
the following article from "The Wine News." Not only is it a fine
read, it includes an example of the "start-it-now-finish-it-later"
method I'd alluded to above. Here is the link:
If you wish to browse through the remainder of the sites, this link
will take you to the Google search results:
Lots of recipes are available online. A simple search using the terms
"risotto" and "recipe" will yield tens of thousands of hits. Recipe
sites such as Epicurious (86 recipes)
...and the Canadian Federation of Chefs and Cooks (121 recipes)
offer a world of options.
I hope you've enjoyed reading this as much as I've enjoyed writing it.
I know I went beyond the scope of your original question, but I do
love to talk food. Oh, and the IV? Wouldn't work that well. The
liquids would arrive in the pan too slowly. The rice would just
dry-cook to a hard brown finish, with a few sticky spots.
Thanks again for an entertaining question,