Risotto | foodsciencenerd.com

Risotto: Not as guilty a pleasure as it seems

Posted on Posted in Recipes

The thought of making risotto may strike fear in many of you.  You picture an old Italian grandmother, standing over a steaming pot for hours and hours, stirring constantly and occassionally adding some lovingly prewarmed broth, just to get a mushy bowl of rice.  It doesn’t have to be that difficult, though!  In fact, I like making risotto so much that I’ve written two other posts on it!

The principle of risotto is this:

Rice has two major starches in it: amylose and amylopectin.  Both are ways that plants store glucose for energy as needed.  Amylose is a starch that creates strands- long chains of glucose that is easily broken down by amylase in your mouth (that is why crackers taste sweeter if you chew for a while without swallowing).

Amylopectin is also created of long chains of glucose, but these chains are branched and complex, and require very specialized enzymes to break down.  Contrary to popular belief, it is this amylopectin, not cream, butter, or cheese, that creates the sauce in risotto.  No additional fat/calories required!  This starch is released during cooking into the surrounding liquid.  It tangles up with each other and slightly gelatinizes upon cooling, creating that creamy sauce that is iconic of good risotto.  The key is to NOT RINSE your rice before cooking.  If you’re making sticky rice, rinsing the rice removes the outer layer of starch and creates those dry, separated grains you’re looking for.  The opposite is true of risotto.

Arborio, or the most common variety of short grain rice, has almost 100% amylopectin.  Because of this, arborio will create a very thick, creamy sauce, but the rice itself will be mushy as well.  Some people love this (particularly if they grew up with this), but I don’t.  I could switch to another variety of short grain rice (a large grocery store like Wegman’s or Whole Foods will have many options, likely in the bulk section).  Or, I could make a major switch that would benefit my health until an Italian grandmother found out and smacked me with her wooden risotto-stirring spoon- use brown arborio rice.

Because of the outer layer of bran, which has the health benefits we’ve all heard a million times, this rice retains a bite even when cooked for hours.  Many people find this bite unpleasant in other situations, like stir fry, but in risotto it creates the perfect contrast with the starchy sauce.  It does, however, make the rice take considerably longer to cook, but I have a technique that does not require standing over the stove the whole time.  In fact, I walked away and worked on my thesis for an hour, only checking occasionally to add more liquid.

Now, about that stirring: the reason for the stirring is agitation, which rubs the starches off the outside of the grain and, in the case of this whole grain rice, gently breaks the outer bran to release the starch from the endosperm within.  However, if the liquid is gently boiling and in total contact with the rice, the pot does the stirring for you.  Occasional stirring is only necessary to prevent grains from burning on the bottom, but that’s it.

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Use a pot with a wide surface-to-volume ratio so all the grains of rice are in contact with a thin layer of liquid.  A large saucepan would do, but since I like to add ingredients to my risotto to make it a full meal rather than a side dish, I used a Dutch oven.  This also retains heat evenly, which helps prevent burning, and has a lid, which prevents too much evaporation.

When enough liquid is absorbed/evaporated to expose a layer of grains, add more broth and stir.  At a gentle boil, this will take somewhere between 5 and 15 minutes (slower at the beginning of cooking, faster when the grains have softened).  This is also the only time you really have to stir, just to promote even cooking.IMG_0627

I used about 6 cups of stock and 1 cup of wine for 1 cup of brown arborio rice, but this ratio will vary widely depending on the type of rice, evaporation, humidity, etc., so this is one place where a recipe can hurt rather than help.  Use your senses to tell you whether more liquid is needed.  Once the rice is soft, no more liquid is needed.

The other great thing about risotto is that it absorbs leftovers wonderfully.  Have some roasted veggies in the fridge?  Make them bite size and toss them in.  Chicken leftover from chicken salad?  Cube it and add it.  Pretty much anything goes, but I like chicken, sauteed mushrooms, broccoli, peas/edamame, asparagus, zucchini, and/or spinach.  If you’re adding ingredients, just make sure that they are bite size and create a good contrast of textures.  I always add fresh grated parmesan at the end as well, and some people like to add some cream.

So that was a lot of information.  Here’s a summary:

Ingredients

  • Olive oil or butter (butter burns faster but tastes better, so it’s up to you)
  • 1 large shallot, 3 garlic cloves, and/or 1 small onion, minced
  • 1 cup brown arborio rice
  • Approximately 6 cups of chicken broth/stock
  • Approximately 1 cup of white wine (drinkable, but not expensive)
  • Salt, pepper, fresh thyme
  • Add-ins, as desired
  1. Saute the aromatics in the olive oil until softened and slightly brown.  Add the rice and stir until just barely toasted.
  2. Pour in about 1-2 cups of stock, stir, and bring to a gentle boil.  Partially lid and let the rice absorb the liquid.  Repeat until the rice is almost cooked through, then add 1 cup of white wine.  Let the rice absorb the wine a bit, and then add any ingredients you want to let them heat through.

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    This is almost done- that pool of liquid just has to be replaced with starchy, creamy goodness and then it’s ready to serve!
  3. When the liquid is absorbed and the rice softened, top with a bit of freshly grated parmesan and serve to adoring fans.

The great thing about this dish is that it reheats beautifully.  In fact, the night I made this, I was almost completely done cooking (see the picture at step 2) when my boyfriend came over.  I turned off the heat, walked away from the kitchen, and had a nice cocktail with him until we were ready to eat.  All I had to do at that point was heat the rice through again, and it was dinner time!

Risotto: Not as guilty a pleasure as it seems

Risotto: Not as guilty a pleasure as it seems

Ingredients

  • Olive oil or butter (butter burns faster but tastes better, so it's up to you)
  • 1 large shallot, 3 garlic cloves, and/or 1 small onion, minced
  • 1 cup brown arborio rice
  • Approximately 6 cups of chicken broth/stock
  • Approximately 1 cup of white wine (drinkable, but not expensive)
  • Salt, pepper, fresh thyme
  • Add-ins, as desired

Directions

  1. Saute the aromatics in the olive oil until softened and slightly brown. Add the rice and stir until just barely toasted.
  2. Pour in about 1-2 cups of stock, stir, and bring to a gentle boil. Partially lid and let the rice absorb the liquid. Repeat until the rice is almost cooked through, then add 1 cup of white wine. Let the rice absorb the wine a bit, and then add any ingredients you want to let them heat through.
  3. When the liquid is absorbed and the rice softened, top with a bit of freshly grated parmesan and serve to adoring fans.
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