The best rice for risotto is Carnaroli rice. I’ll bet you thought I was going to say arborio rice, didn’t you? Another contender is Vialone Nano. What they all three of these medium-grained rice varieties have in common is their structure.
If you look closely at a grain of arborio or carnaroli, you will see that the outside is translucent and the inside contains a separate opaque area called a pearl. These two layers contain different types of starch.
As mentioned in the article about sticky rice, all rice contains a mixture of starches called amylose and amylopectin. However, risotto rice has a high amylopectin layer on the outside, the translucent part, and a high amylose grain on the inside. Each part reacts differently to cooking in water.
As you add water or broth to the rice to make risotto, the high-amylopectin part of the rice starts to dissolve and create a thickened creamy sauce while the amylose part on the inside begins to expand and soften. This is why you stir risotto while adding water or broth in batches, to help liberate the amylopectin and create a sauce while allowing the inside to cook. However, the truth is, you can cook any variety of “risotto” rice by just adding the appropriate amount of water and simmering in a covered pan. It won’t be risotto but it won’t be bad, either.
Why Carnaroli Instead of Arborio?
The only reason Arborio rice is considered the best rice for risotto in the United States is that it has long been widely available. It is also responsible for the reputation of risotto for being unforgiving and difficult to perfect. Arborio has a tendency to go from undercooked to overcooked in what seems like a second. This makes it very difficult to judge when to stop cooking and serve the rice. It may seem to be a little too tough, but half a minute later, you have mush. And, if you do not serve your risotto immediately, the retained heat continues to cook the rice, resulting in a mushy thick mess.
Carnaloni although it is grown along with arborio in the same regions of Northern Italy in the Po Valley, doesn’t go from undercooked to mush in a second and it results in a creamier risotto. It is more forgiving and tends to remain al dente in the center for longer.
Basic Rules for Risotto
- Risotto can be made with water or broth. If you use water, you will have to add more salt and rely on other ingredients to lend flavor. A homemade broth is best but store bought broth or even bouillon cubes can still make an enjoyable risotto. Chicken broth is the usual but beef, veal, fish, can be used. I like to steep dried mushrooms in a heated chicken broth, remove the mushrooms, and use the resulting mushroomy broth to make my risotto. The rehydrated mushrooms are added at the end to make a “mushroom risotto.” What mushrooms? The star of the show is porcini mushrooms. If you can’t find them in your grocery store try Delitaliana Dried Porcini Mushrooms.
- Use a heavy-bottomed medium-sized saucepan. Do not use a skillet as the wide and shallow space allows faster evaporation causing the cooking to go too quickly.
- Traditionally, risotto starts with butter and onions but olive oil is often used today. The onions are sauteed in the butter until soft and then the Carnoroli rice is added and stirred so that they become coated with the butter and start to look more translucent.
- Cook on medium-high to high heat, adding 1/2 cup broth at a time while stirring. While you must stir almost the whole time you are cooking risotto, the world will not end if you stop stirring for a moment. When all the broth has been absorbed, add the next 1/2 cup. Continue until the rice reaches the desired texture and then add any additional ingredients.
- When you finish cooking risotto, the rice should be covered by a thin layer of creamy liquid. You don’t want it to be too dry. It should be creamy and as Italians say all’onda or “on the wave.” This means it should be nice and moist not thick and mushy.
- Additional ingredients almost always include more butter and Parmesan.
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