This Italian classic shouts “Autumn” to me. It is rich and comforting, yet only needs a few affordable ingredients to deliver that “MMmmm”. The extravagant garlicky morel topping is optional.
Much has been written about risotto, how difficult it is to get right, the technique, the rice to use and the ideal consistency. So here’s a bit of a masterclass to making a good risotto, with lots of helpful hints and tips.
Let’s kill the myth straight away: this is not a difficult dish to make. Yes, it requires patience, a certain technique and the right rice. But that’s it. This is not fancy Cordon Bleu.
Secondly, there are recipes out there such as Delia’s oven-baked risotto, which use a shortcut for the laborious stirring. No offence, but those are not true risottos. They are simply very nice rice dishes in their own right, which happen to use a risotto rice.
Lastly, how fluid the risotto should be varies from Italian region to region, and is a matter of personal preference. For me, you should not be able to shape or mould a risotto. Every time I see this on TV cookery programs, my toes curl up in agony. In my book, a risotto should be unctuous and flowing, “All’Onda”, as the Italians say, which roughly translates to “on waves”.
So let’s have a look at the key ingredients and processes.
The right rice
Do not attempt to make a risotto with a long grain, brown or pudding rice. A risotto rice is a specific Italian rice variety that releases its starch as you’re stirring. Together with the stock, this creates the typical “sauce” enveloping each grain of rice without the need for cream or any thickening agent.
Arborio is the most well known variety, a slightly transparent stubby grain and a good all-rounder. It tends to get starchier and stickier than the other risotto rice varieties though, which may or may not be what you’re looking for.
Carnaroli and Vialone Nano are lesser known, but are becoming more widely available in good supermarkets now.
Carnaroli is a medium, plump starchy grain which produces a luscious creaminess. It keeps its bite and shape better than Arborio and is less prone to overcooking.
Vialone Nano is only cultivated in Veneto. Smaller than the other two, it cooks faster and absorbs stock willingly. It produces the richest of risottos, ideal for Venetian style risottos, risotto Milanese and pumpkin risotto.
Of the three, Carnaroli is the most delicate and refined, favoured by many Italians, chefs and home-cooks alike. Antonio Carluccio calls it the “Ferrari of rices”.
The right spoon
A wooden spoon, ideally one with a hole in it, known as a “girariso”. Basically, as you stir one way, some rice goes through the hole the other way, so it kinda doubles up your stirring efforts and is said to help release the starch from the rice. These spoons have a squared side as well, which helps getting into corners. My “wooden spoon with a hole” is my favourite stirrer for pretty much anything and it travels with me wherever I go.
Many chefs prefer a silicon spatula these days. Makes sense too, as you can scrape any rice from the sides of the pan really easily, and it gets right into any “corners” of the pan. But I’m a bit of a traditionalist and I do like the hole principle.
Stir regularly, but not continuously and not too vigorously, so as not to overwork the rice and break up the grain, and to allow the stock you’ve added to stay hot enough to cook the rice.
The right pan
A generous heavy-based casserole, with high sides and a rounded bottom. No point in attempting this in a wide flat frying pan. Rice and stock will spill over the sides as you stir, and the wide surface will cause the stock to evaporate before it gets absorbed into the rice. The rounded edges of a casserole make it easier to ensure no uncooked rice gets left behind in “corners”.
A soffrito is frying off base ingredients such as onion, garlic, carrot and celery in oil or butter. Here we are using onion and garlic only.
I read somewhere years ago that you really need to give onion the time to cook before adding liquids, else you’ll never quite get rid of that oniony rawness. I think it may have been Marcella Hazan. That goes for chilli con carne, stews and anything else where you need to fry off onions or shallots. From experience, I’d say Marcella was spot on.
Marco Pierre White swears by grating the onion and the garlic, as most people don’t chop the onion and garlic fine enough, whereas you want those to virtually melt into the risotto. He claims it also gets rid of most of the onions acidity, the frying gets rid of any remaining acidity. Good to know for other dishes too.
The toasting stage (“Tostatura”)
Once the onion is just about cooked, the rice gets “toasted” in the oil without browning before adding liquid. You need to allow the rice to get “thirsty”. This is a key stage in the process. The toasting effectively breaks the husk of the rice and readies it for absorbing the stock. If the rice is not toasted before adding the stock, you’ll find it takes ages for the rice to cook.
No surprises here: as the stock is being fully absorbed by the rice, quality is paramount. If not home made, use the best you can afford. A stock cube will make the risotto too salty by the time it’s cooked. So if you are using a stock cube or bouillon powder, make up the stock lighter than usual.
On average, the ratio should be 4:1, so 4 times the amount of stock to rice. For example, 200 gr rice will likely need 800 ml of stock.
The stock should stay at boiling point while you add it ladle by ladle. So have your casserole for the risotto on one cooking ring, and a pan with stock on a low heat on the cooking ring next to it.
The first ladle of stock or liquid is added once the rice asks for it. This sounds ridiculous, I know. But once you have toasted the rice for a bit, it is as if you’ll hear the rice sigh “SSssshhhhh”, begging you to add some stock. So you will see me hanging my ear over the toasted rice, listening out for that sigh.
Only add the next ladle of stock once the first ladle is absorbed. The rice should still be a little moist, but no longer swimming when you add the next lot. The key is to add the hot stock a ladle at the time, and to stir often until the rice is cooked. Slowly slowly catch a monkey.
The right fat at the right time
Contrary to expectation, olive oil is apparently not the right choice for this dish. Experts claim it is too strong. So I opt for my beloved rapeseed oil. Any other light, neutral vegetable oil such as groundnut would be equally fine. But if that is a step too far for you, stick with olive oil. I won’t tell.
So what about butter? In my opinion, butter is best not used for the frying stage unless used together with oil, as it will turn nut brown too early and doesn’t coat the rice like oil does. Instead it is best used as a flavouring and emulsifier at the final beating-in stage (the “Mantecatura”). As this is a flavouring step, it simply has to be butter, not margarine, not a “healthy” spread, but good-old butter. Unsalted, slightly salted or the whole-hog salted thing depending on preference. But full-on butter nonetheless.
The mantecatura is what elevates a good risotto to a great risotto.
To cream or not to cream, that is the question
This is big debate even between Italian chefs. There is school of thought that every risotto needs a smidgen of cream at the mantecatura stage. There is another school of thought that thinks that is anathema and the creaminess should purely come from the starch, butter and Parmesan.
For me personally, I don’t think cream is needed. In fact, I find even the merest addition takes away from the depth of flavour you’ve just created. I might consider it in a seafood risotto, where I would not add Parmesan. But not in much else.
I like lots of mushrooms, because the rice expands and the mushrooms shrink, ending up in a perfect balance for me. I use plain firm ones (button, white or chestnut) and dried porcini. The fresh mushrooms could be cooked separately and added at the end. But I like their juices to be released into the risotto as they cook, so I add them after the 3rd or 4th ladle of stock. This way they retain some bite, don’t disintegrate and their juices do their thing. I add the soaked porcini at about the 5th ladle full.
For the topping, if using, try fresh chanterelles, morels, girolles or a wild mushroom mix. Be sure to wash them properly, as there could be half a forest hiding in the gills.
Wild mushroom Risotto with Garlic and Thyme Morels (serves 4 as a main, 6-7 as a starter – GF V RSF)
450 gr risotto rice (I used Carnaroli)
Approx. 1.6 -1.8 l hot vegetable stock (chicken or beef if you’re not vegetarian)
320 gr mushrooms, wiped clean with kitchen paper or a mushroom brush, roughly chopped
A good handful of dried porcini (approx 40 gr)
2-3 tbsp rapeseed oil or 50/50 oil and butter
1 medium onion or 2-3 shallots, peeled and very finely chopped or grated
2 fat garlic cloves, peeled and very finely chopped, crushed or grated
a small glass of dry white wine or vermouth
50 gr chilled butter, cubed
50 gr freshly grated Parmesan, Grana Padano or vegetarian alternative, plus extra for serving
A little shredded basil or chopped parsley and watercress for serving (optional)
A good knob of soft butter
A good handful or 2 of morels or other fresh wild mushrooms, washed and dried
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
Soak the dried porcini in enough boiling water to generously cover.
Heat the oil in a heavy-based casserole over medium heat. Add the onion and fry without browning for a about 3-5 minutes until transparent, stirring often.
Add the garlic and stir until the garlic is cooked, but not coloured.
Add the rice, stir to ensure each grain is coated with oil. Toast for a few minutes, stirring regularly. Don’t allow to brown.
Wait for the sigh.
Add the wine and stir until absorbed. Wait for the next sigh.
Add a ladle or 2 of hot stock and stir regularly until absorbed.
Add another ladle of stock and stir regularly until absorbed. Do this once more before adding the chopped mushrooms and S&P.
Add another ladle of stock and keep stirring regularly. Yes, this is a labour of love.
Strain the porcini and squeeze them dry, reserving the liquid. Chop them finely. Stir the porcini through the risotto, and strain the soaking liquid through a fine sieve into the hot stock.
Then keep adding a ladle of hot stock at the time, stirring regularly, as often and as much as needed until the rice is just about cooked. The rice should retain a little chalky bite when done.
You may need more or less stock. You may need to turn the heat up or down to keep the rice cooking, but not catching at the bottom of the pan.
Meanwhile, if using the topping, melt a knob of butter in a small frying pan over medium heat until foaming. Add the morels and toss for a minute or 2. Add the garlic, thyme and S&P, turn the heat down to medium-low, cover and gently fry until cooked and fragrant, 3-5 minutes.
Just before the rice is done, turn off the heat. Add small blobs of the knob of butter onto the top of the risotto, don’t stir it in yet. and let it sit there. Cover and let the risotto rest for a minute or so.
Then vigorously beat the butter and Parmesan through the rice for at least a minute until well combined. Your arm should hurt. Check the seasoning. Cover and let the risotto rest for another couple of minutes while you prepare the plates.
Divide some watercress around the outside of 4 deep plates (if using). Ladle the risotto into the middle of each and top with the garlicky morels (if using, discarding the thyme). Grate over a little extra Parmesan and scatter over some basil or parsley.