Risotto is one of those classic recipes that is always a crowd pleaser. And the best part is a traditional homemade risotto is quite easy; It’s much easier than most people think. The main problem most people have is with achieving the incorrect consistency. This instructional guide will how you how to perfect your risotto so you can whip it up with very little fuss.
This guide is part of my ‘how-to’ series so treat this post as more of a basis for learning rather than for a single recipe. However I did include various risotto recipes throughout this article to give you some inspiration. Other instructional guides include things like how to cook beef tongue or how to break down a rabbit.
Risotto is not a complicated dish, and there are so many additions it is very easy to customize. However I am going to break down each individual component so you will know why each ingredient is important and what it does for the dish.
What Is Risotto
Let’s start with answering a very simple question. What is risotto? Risotto is a northern Italian rice dish that is cooked in broth until creamy. Specifically, risotto comes from the Lombardy region of Italy where it was made of rice, fat, and saffron. These days there are many regional variations as well as international versions using local ingredients.
In Italy risotto is most commonly served as a primo, or a first course. So it comes in between the antipasto and the secondo (or main course). Other dishes served in the same category include pasta, seafood, soup, gnocchi, and others.
Break It Down: The Main Components Of A Basic Risotto
There are a few simple ingredients in a classic risotto, and like with most Italian dishes the focus is on using the highest quality ingredients possible. For all of my risotto recipes, from a simple mushroom risotto to something more trendy like quail, I use 7 core ingredients. So let’s dive into the 7 key ingredients to making the best homemade risotto.
Risotto is a dish known for its creamy and velvety texture, achieved by using a specific type of rice with high starch content. The best rice varieties for making risotto are Arborio, Carnaroli, and Vialone Nano. Here’s why each of these rice varieties are ideal for risotto:
- Arborio rice is one of the most popular choices for making risotto due to it’s affordability and ease of purchase outside of Italy. It has a high starch content, particularly in the center of the grain.
- The high starch content gives the risotto its characteristic creamy texture as the grains release starch during cooking, creating a thick, velvety sauce.
- Arborio rice has a slightly shorter, plump grain with a central white dot, making it perfect for absorbing liquids while maintaining a firm texture in the center. You can buy it online here.
- Carnaroli rice is often considered the “king of risotto rice” due to its exceptional quality, and thus demands a higher price than arborio.
- It has even higher starch content than arborio, which makes for an exceptionally creamy risotto.
- Carnaroli rice has a longer grain and can absorb more liquid than Arborio without becoming mushy, resulting in a creamy yet slightly al dente texture. You can buy it online here.
- Vialone Nano:
- Vialone Nano rice is another excellent choice for making risotto and is especially favored in the Veneto region of Italy. Like carnaroli, vialone nano is considered an ‘elite’ risotto rice and is quite a bit more expensive than the more common arborio.
- It has a shorter, rounder grain and a high starch content, producing a creamy and smooth texture in the final dish.
- Vialone Nano rice is known for its ability to absorb flavors well, making it a great choice for seafood or vegetable-based risottos. You can buy it online here.
While Arborio, Carnaroli, and Vialone Nano are the most commonly recommended rice varieties for risotto, you can also find other suitable options such as Baldo, Roma, or Maratelli rice, depending on your personal preference and regional availability. The key to a successful risotto is the rice’s ability to release starch gradually during cooking, resulting in that sought-after creamy consistency while maintaining a slight bite or “al dente” texture in the center of each grain.
The Oil (or Butter)
Frying rice in oil or butter at the beginning of making risotto is an essential step in the cooking process, and it serves several important purposes:
- Toasting the Rice: Frying the rice briefly in oil or butter before adding any liquid helps to toast the rice grains. This toasting process, called tostatura in Italian, enhances the nutty flavor of the rice and develops a deeper, more complex taste in the final dish. It also gives the rice a slightly translucent edge, which contributes to the creamy texture of the risotto.
- Sealing the Grains: Frying the rice coats each grain with a thin layer of fat. This step seals the exterior of the rice and prevents it from absorbing too much liquid too quickly. As a result, the rice will gradually absorb the flavorful liquid (typically broth or wine) during the simmering process, allowing the starches to slowly release and create the desired creamy consistency.
- Enhancing Aroma: Frying the rice in oil or butter releases its natural aroma and flavors. This step adds a rich and appetizing scent to the dish, making the cooking process more enjoyable and the finished risotto more aromatic.
- Creating a Flavor Base: It’s common to sauté onions, garlic, or other aromatics along with the rice at the beginning of the risotto-making process. Frying these ingredients in oil or butter helps develop their flavors and create a flavorful base for the risotto.
I recommend using olive oil in this step over butter as butter can burn if you are not careful. Since you are heating the oil you don’t need to buy a super premium extra virgin cold pressed mono-varietal, however you should use one that you normally enjoy the taste of.
If you do want to buy a super premium extra virgin cold pressed mono-varietal I can whole-heartedly recommend The Governor. I’ve been to their groves in Corfu, Greece and it is seriously one of the best olive oils I’ve tried in my life.
Yes, an onion is an allium. But so are shallots which I always use for risotto. Of course, you can use white, yellow, or red onions if you like, but if you can get your hands on some shallots they take a simple homemade risotto to the next level.
To prepare the shallots for risotto just dice them extremely fine. They will melt completely into the dish so you get all that great shallot flavor without altering the creamy texture.
Risotto traditionally uses white wine as a key ingredient. The alcohol is important to ‘shock’ the rice grains and help them to better absorb the stock. Now, everyone always seems to recommend a regular dry white wine when making risotto, but I have a trick I’ve been doing for years (and pretty much every risotto recipe on this blog) and it gets me rave reviews.
The best alcohol to add to your homemade risotto is Lillet Blanc. If you cannot find it at your local liquor store you can buy it online. Fun fact, the original Kina Lillet from the same company was the original ingredient in James Bond’s vesper martini!
The stock used in a risotto is perhaps the most important ingredient after the rice itself. It imparts tons of flavor and a well made stock can kick your homemade risotto from acceptable to outstanding. In fact, if you want to perfect this dish, you really need to have a good ability to make delicious stock.
While I use a variety of stocks depending on the type of risotto I am making, I always tend to go homemade. Here are a few of my favorite stock recipes from around the web:
- Beef Stock – I love Chef Jean Pierre’s beef stock recipe and it has been one of my go-to choices for years. And while it is a strong, heavy flavor, it works great if you are making a rich risotto like an alla milanese for osso buco. I know the traditional recipe calls for chicken stock, but I love the beef and saffron fusion myself.
- Chicken Stock – Chicken stock is one of the most popular stocks for making risotto because it’s just so easy to balance other ingredients. You can pretty much pair chicken stock with most other flavors and you’ll end up with a delicious final result. I highly recommend the stock recipe from Heidi at FoodieCrush.
- Mushroom Stock – Arguably the most popular risotto both homemade and in restaurants is mushroom risotto, or risotto ai funghi. I have tons of variations on this site already, from a basic version with button mushrooms, to an elegant version with confit chanterelles. The easiest method to create a strong mushroom stock in my opinion is to rehydrate dried porcini in a pot of warm water. Super easy right!
- Vegetable Stock – Similar to mushroom stock in that this is a vegan option, you can make quite a tasty risotto without any meat products at all. A vegetable stock is just a simmered pot of various vegetables, which can become even more efficient if you use the odds and end scraps from previous meals. I rarely make the same vegetable stock twice, but I often add carrot scraps, onion (and scraps), garlic, leeks, and pretty much whatever I need to use up. Avoid anything in the brassica family (broccoli, cauliflower, etc.) as they can become quite bitter when boiled for a long time.
- Fish/Seafood Stock – If you want to opt for a fish or shellfish risotto then you can use a matching stock. Take for example my langoustine risotto; I boil the shells until all that delicious flavor comes out and makes a very rich langoustine stock. For fish stock I really like the LinsFood recipe!
- Other – Outside of those five main stock options, you can get creative. I’ve made quail stock and rabbit stock for the respective risottos, so if you wanted to make, for example, a Japanese inspired risotto why not use dashi, or even a diluted miso soup! It may not be traditional, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be delicious!
Simply put, there are four cheeses I use when making risotto, and they are used purely based on availability. I have no suggestions as to what you HAVE to use to make the best tasting dish, as each cheese varies just slightly and always makes an excellent risotto. Here are my four recommended cheeses to use in risotto.
I ALWAYS finish off my risotto with a good amount of butter. While I use oil in the early stages, I always suggest finishing with butter for an extra rich and creamy risotto. Now, the question remains, what butter to use? I have two rules here:
- Use a butter with a high fat content. This usually means a European butter that is 82% fat or higher. There are plenty of brands if you are actually in Europe, but if you are in America then the easiest option will be Kerrygold but if you can swing it I highly recommend Isigny Ste Mere.
- Always use unsalted. It might seem counterproductive to use an unsalted butter but add salt anyways, but here’s the rub. The stock, cheese, and butter all have the ability to impart saltiness to the risotto. The stock and butter can be homemade with salt, but the cheese is guaranteed to have it. So by buying unsalted butter (and making salt free stock) you can control how much salt you add to your dish. It might take some getting used to, but it is absolutely worth it for the control in cooking.
Making Risotto Step-by-Step
Now that you fully understand the necessary ingredients, and why they are used, let’s begin actually making a risotto. For this instructional guide I’m going to use a mushroom risotto as it is one of my favorites. Feel free to use any mushrooms you want, but if you can get your hands on some dried porcini that would be great.
Step 1: Bring a pot of water to a boil. Allow to cool slightly. Measure out 65 grams of dried porcini mushrooms and place in a bowl. Cover with six cups (1.5L) of water. Let sit for 4 hours, or overnight. This step should be done far in advance as the mushroom stock can be kept chilled before you are ready to cook.
Step 2: Measure out 1 cup (175 grams) of your chosen risotto rice.
Step 3: Set a pan (I recommend a large stainless steel skillet*) on medium heat and add a glug of olive oil. You only need enough to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Add your rice and stir it around until coated by the oil, then add the finely diced shallot.
Step 4: After a couple minutes or so, or when you see the rice beginning to toast, pour in the Lillet Blanc. You want to use an entire cup (250 ml) of the wine. This is quite a bit more than most people recommend, but I love the flavor it imparts, and the extra alcohol really seems to help the rice along. Stir the pan around until the wine is either absorbed or evaporated. Then begin on the adding of the stock.
Step 5: Place your bowl of mushroom stock right next to your pan for easy access. Start by scooping about a half cup (125 ml) of stock into your pan and stirring it around with the rice. As the stock evaporates, continue adding 1/4 of a cup (65 ml) at a time to replenish. Never let the pan get completely dry. When there is only a half cup of stock left, reduce the heat to low and add it in. Stir the pan until the risotto mixture is uniform, and then add in 75 grams of butter. Yes, that’s a lot of butter, and yes that is why risotto you get in Italy is so good.
Step 6: When the butter is melted and stirred in, add in your grated hard cheese. I like to use about a half cup of grated cheese, which is only about 50 grams of pre-shred weight. Turn off the heat and stir the cheese into your rice. Taste and add salt as needed** then plate and serve.
*I like All-Clad and I have a method to get cookware from them for much more affordable prices in my article ‘10 Must Have Kitchen Tools Every Home Cook Needs To Own‘)
** Once you figure out how much salt you like to add, you can add that amount to your stock in the beginning so it gets better absorbed by the rice. The only reason we are using unsalted stock and butter now is for you to learn how much salt you actually want in your finished risotto and to be careful not to oversalt the dish. For example I tend to add 1.5 tsp of salt and .5 tsp of MSG to my stock before cooking, but you might find you like more or less, which is a perfectly acceptable adjustment.
Tips & Tricks
While risotto sounds fancy and impressive, it is surprisingly easy to make, once you get the hang of it. Here are five of my favorite tips and tricks for making a perfect risotto every time.
- Use a wide, heavy-bottomed pan. You want to keep the rice in a constant state of almost boiling, so a large, flat pan is the best choice.
- You don’t need the highest heat setting. Yes, using higher heat will cause you to make the dish quicker, but it won’t be better. Cooking risotto on medium heat is the best way to balance the absorption and evaporation rate of stock while you stir.
- Avoid pre-shredded cheese. I know this should go without saying, but there’s a specific reason for it here. Pre-shredded cheese is often tossed with corn starch to prevent sticking. When added to the pan, the starch will absorb any excess moisture and turning your risotto from a nice, spreading rice dish to a singe massed clump. I know it seems trendy to mold risotto into a puck using a ring mold, but it really should be quite liquid. I find the best tool for grating hard cheese is a microplane, which grates the cheese into very fine, easily meltable shreds.
- Sub the white wine for Lillet Blanc. I know this was already mentioned, but it is worth repeating. If you want to give your rice a kick that makes your guests go “oh wow” then using a fortified or infused wine is the way to go.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Do you have to stir the rice nonstop when making an authentic risotto?
A: You do not have to constantly stir the rice when making risotto, however you should stir it often. If you needed to let the pan sit for 30 seconds while you do something else, that is completely okay, and if you add more stock at once then you can extend that time a bit longer. That being said, you do want to keep the rice moving so the starch creates a creamy consistency in the final dish.
Q: What is the best rice to use when making risotto like they do in Italy?
A: There are a few different rice varieties you can choose from when making risotto at home. The most popular worldwide is arborio, but two premium options that really elevate your cooking are Vialone Nano and Carnaroli.
Q: Do I need to rinse the rice before making risotto?
A: You should NOT rinse your rice before making risotto as this removes necessary starch. This is not sushi or biryani where rinsing the rice is a mandatory step. If you do it here, your final dish will not be as good as possible.
Q: Can I make risotto ahead of time?
A: Risotto is best served immediately for the creamiest texture. However, you can prepare it partially in advance by toasting the rice and adding some liquid. Finish cooking it just before serving.
Q: Can I make risotto with dietary restrictions (e.g., vegan or gluten-free)?
A: Yes, risotto can be adapted to various dietary needs. Use vegetable broth for a vegetarian or vegan version, and ensure any added ingredients (like cheese) fit your dietary restrictions. Substitute gluten-free broth and rice for a gluten-free version.
How To Store Risotto Leftovers
The best way to store risotto is to use an airtight container and place it in the refrigerator. I love using these deli style containers as they make portioning leftovers super easy, as well as being extremely useful for meal prepping.
To reheat just add a tablespoon or two of water and microwave until hot. You might need to stir the rice halfway through heating depending on how much there is and how high everything is piled.
Leftovers are fine for 2-3 days; After that the rice pulls away from the starchy sauce and you will end up with a dry, somewhat hard dish. So plan on eating the leftovers fairly quickly.
What To Make With Leftover Risotto?
If you are looking for things to make WITH your leftover risotto then this section is for you. While it is not often I have leftovers, when I do I often like to repurpose them into a new dish. For example if I have leftover chicken thighs I’ll shred them the next day for tacos. But how can a creamy, starchy, savory rice dish be ‘upcycled’?
Well, look no further than Italy themselves. They’ve been repurposing homemade risotto since at least the 10th century! What, you might be wondering, do they make? It is called Arancini, and it is one of the most wonderful foods I’ve ever had the opportunity to eat. If you are looking for a recipe I highly recommend this arancini recipe from Barbara and Silvana at Recipes From Italy!
Whether you are just getting started, or have spent years on the quest to make the most perfect risotto, I hope this guide has helped you along. If you have any questions please feel free to drop them down in the comment section and I will try to get back to you ASAP. And if you are looking for more guides to fantastic Italian food, then making homemade pasta is a great next step!