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What's So Scary About Risotto?

Don't we all love risotto? It has been so cold here in Michigan for so long now that it's really time for some risotto. There are so many people, though, who would love to be able to make it but are scared to try. They've heard it's difficult, takes forever to cook and requires constant stirring (this part is sort of true - it does require a lot of stirring, but not constantly). It's actually very simple to make and, once you master a basic recipe, there are endless variations you can try. It's easy to experiment with whatever you have on hand.

You can serve risotto as a side dish or use it as a main course, although Italians primarily use it as a primo piatto - when they would normally eat a small pasta course. (This is true unless you eat at Dino and Tony's in Rome, where Tony loves to serve you both a risotto and a pasta course.)


Don't try to substitute regular rice in risotto - it just won't work. Regular rice does not contain the kind of starch needed to make a creamy risotto. The rice used most widely for risotto, and the easiest to find, is Arborio rice from Italy. It is a short plump grain that is perfect for risotto. My favorite rice, though, is Carnaroli, when I can find it. Carnaroli has the highest amount of the particular starch needed for risotto, making it very creamy and absorbing lots of liquid.

You need two pots to make risotto - one to cook the dish and one to keep the broth warm that you will use. You will choose which kind of liquid to use depending on what kind of risotto you are making. Marcella Hazan believes that you should never use chicken broth for risotto (Mario does!) but that is what is frequently used to make the traditional Risotto Milanese. For the risotto, I like to use a pot which has sloping sides, like a chef's pot (see below) or a bouillabaisse pot, for a large batch. It makes the stirring of the risotto much nicer.

Risotto Milanese is a nice side dish to serve with meats. It's wonderful, of course, with Osso Bucco. As a general guide, I allow 1/4 cup of dry rice for each person as a side dish. And don't omit the saffron - it's really what defines this traditional risotto.

Risotto Milanese


serves 4 as a side dish


  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup onion, diced finely
  • 1 cup Arborio or Carnaroli rice
  • 1 large pinch saffron threads
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan


Bring the chicken broth to a simmer. Lower heat, keep warm.

In the risotto pan, add the olive oil and onion. Cook the onion slowly for several minutes, until soft but do not brown. Add the rice and cook the rice for a couple of minutes. Add the saffron. Add the white wine and cook for a couple of minutes until the liquid has cooked off.

Start adding the broth. Add a couple of ladles initially and stir. Use a rubber spatula instead of a spoon. This really is the best tool - you can really lift the rice off the bottom of the pan. When you begin adding the broth, start timing the risotto. It should take between 20-25 minutes. You should stir the rice as much as you can, not allowing it to stick to the bottom of the pan. Do not boil the rice, just keep it on a simmer. As soon as the liquid has cooked off, keeping adding the broth by the ladleful. After about 20 minutes, taste the rice. It should be soft, but still retain a little firmness. When you think it is done, do not add any more liquid. Four cups of broth is usually just right. When the rice has absorbed the liquid, turn off the heat and add the parmesan. Serve hot and add more grated parmesan to the top if you like.

Tip: Use real Parmigiano Reggiano, if you can, and grate it yourself. Look to make sure the rind has the Parmigiano stamp on it. I use this cheese myself and I do not throw the rinds away after I have used all the cheese. I will cut off a chunk of the rind and throw it in when I make risottos and let it cook along with the rice, flavoring the risotto. 

Favorite pan for risotto: Mauviel's copper chef's pan


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