The Realities of Risotto

Risotto, is an Italian specialty that is in fact the dominant staple in some northern regions, where it is often preferred over pasta. Cultivated in Lombardy, Piedmonte, and the Veneto, risotto can be traced as far back as the eleventh century, when the short grain we know as risotto today was brought to Italy from the Far East. Simple, yet somewhat time consuming to prepare, this dish is economical and very versatile.

You could in fact eat a different risotto recipe every day of the year, and not run out of flavor choices.A true Italian risotto should be creamy, yet not runny, cooked to a consistency Italians call all’onda, which translates as “with waves”. Although the cooking time may vary with the rice used, or the temperature it is cooked over, risotto is done when each individual grain remains slightly firm to the bite.

Although the number of recipes for risotto are endless, the basic cooking technique remains the same for each. Once you are comfortable with this technique, you can experiment with the myriad of possible flavorings.

Almost every risotto begins with sautéing some chopped onion in butter, or a mixture of butter and oil which lays the flavor base on which the rest of the recipe is built on. Once the onion is tender, the rice is added and stirred until well coated with the oil.

Sometimes a splash of wine is used next, and once it has been absorbed, small amounts of hot broth are added. During this period of adding liquid to the rice, it must be stirred constantly, cooked gently over a low boil. The final flavorings are often added in the last few minutes of the cooking process, and once it has completed cooking, it is removed from the heat, and a little butter, and sometimes grated parmesan are added.

Ingredients: The two primary ingredients are the rice and the broth. You should use an Italian variety of rice that is specifically grown in Italy, such as Arborio, Vialone Nano, or Cararoli. Arborio can now be found in most American grocery stores, but certainly can be found at an Italian specialty store.

The broth should be homemade; to ensure the most flavor, but if time or circumstances make having homemade broth impossible, use the best canned broth you can find. Chicken, vegetable, fish and meat broths are all used depending on the other ingredients used in the dish.

The flavoring ingredients can be almost anything, including vegetables, seafood, meats, and every combination in between. I even made a wonderful strawberry risotto for a special Easter celebration while I was living in Italy. I have recipes for Beef Broth, Chicken Broth, and Vegetable Broth to get you started.

Basic Risotto Cooking Tips: 

• Never wash the rice. The starch is important to keeping the rice creamy.

• Use only hot broth when cooking your risotto. Adding cool broth will simply prolong the cooking time.

• Prepare all the ingredients in advance, and place in easy reach in the order they will be used. You cannot stop stirring to chop ingredients as they are needed.

• To determine when you should add more liquid, lightly draw your wooden spoon across the bottom of your pot. You should be able to create a space as you draw your spoon across the bottom.

• Add your liquid in 1/4 cup intervals, only adding more once it has been completely absorbed.

• Near the end of the cooking time, taste the rice frequently, as the cooking time can vary a few minutes each time you cook it.

• If you have run out of hot broth and your risotto seems to require a little more cooking time, add a little hot water instead.

Basic Risotto Recipe: The following is a very basic Risotto Parmesan recipe, which is often a good way to introduce yourself to the technique of making a real Italian risotto. Once you are satisfied with the results, you can begin experimenting with some of the flavoring ingredients suggested below. The quantities needed to make Risotto Parmesan for 4-6 are as follows:

6 Cups Chicken Broth, Heated

4 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter, 1 Tablespoon Removed To Finish The Dish

1/2 Cup Finely Chopped Onion

2 Cups Arborio Rice

1/2 Cup Dry White Wine

1/2 Cup Grated Parmesan Cheese

Sauté the chopped onion in the butter until soft and translucent. Add the rice, and stir to coat well with the butter. Next add the wine, and stir constantly until the rice has absorbed it and begins to dry. Cooking over medium low heat, begin adding the hot broth in 1/4 increments, stirring continually. Continue in this manner until the risotto is al dente, or remains slightly firm to the bite. Generally cooking time is between 20 and 25 minutes. Once cooked, remove from the heat, and stir in the reserved butter and cheese. Serve immediately while hot.

This is the traditional method for preparing risotto which I think is important to learn. You can also make risotto much quicker using a pressure cooker. Check out my Pressure Cooker Risotto recipe.

Flavorings For Risotto: Try a couple of these suggestions, experiment on your own, or try one of the many recipes found in my Risotto Collection.

Spinach – Add 10 ounces of finely chopped spinach in the last few minutes of cooking.

Pesto – Add 1/2 cup prepared Pesto Sauce into the rice once fully cooked. Garnish with toasted pine nuts.

Zucchini And Shrimp – Add 1 medium zucchini thinly sliced into rounds, and 1/2 pound, cleaned, de-veined shrimp, into the rice during the last 5 minutes of cooking. Do not add the cheese to this recipe, as you generally do not add cheese to any dish containing seafood.

Primavera – Add 2 cups of spring vegetables, such as asparagus, baby peas, green beans, broccoli, cleaned, cut into bite sized pieces and blanched, to the rice mixture during the last few minutes of cooking.

Cheese – Add 4 ounces of mozzarella or fontina cheese cut into small cubes, to the cooked, hot risotto, stir well and serve.

Mushroom And Sausage – Cook 12 ounces cleaned, chopped mushrooms in 2 tablespoons of butter until golden brown. Set aside. Add 2 sausages removed from their casings to the onion mixture, breaking them up with a fork as they cook. Once the rice mixture is completely cooked, remove from the heat, and stir in the mushrooms into the host rice and serve immediately.

Smoked Salmon – Use fish stock in place of the chicken broth, and when the rice is fully cooked, remove it from the heat, and add 4 to 6 ounces of smoked salmon cut into small pieces, 1/4 cup of heavy cream, and two tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or dill.

Lobster – In a skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of butter, and cook 1 clove of finely chopped garlic, and 1 chopped, peeled tomato for 1 minute. Add to this mixture, 8 ounces of cooked lobster meat, cut into small pieces. Cook the risotto following the basic recipe, and once cook, remove from the heat, add the lobster mixture and one tablespoon of chopped fresh parsley.

Deborah Mele 


  1. I love all the tips and couldn’t agree more. I am from Northern Italy where risotto is a staple of local cuisine. I would add that it’s very important to let the wine evaporate completely, as you don’t want your risotto to have a boozy aftertaste.
    Pesto as a risotto flavouring is a bit unusual I would say, as it is rather served with pasta, such as trofie.
    A great risotto flavouring, very traditional in Milan is saffron. I have covered it here:

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