Risotto is one of those dishes that—like a soufflé or seared duck—we might hem and haw about, and avoid making because it seems difficult, but once we try it we’re blown away by the results. Here’s one Italian chef’s tips and tricks for improving your risotto.
Ordering risotto out or making it at home often feels like a gamble: What if you (or the chef) hasn’t cooked the rice just so, so it’s crunchy or burned and not silky? Risotto is not at all a make-ahead dish, and requires a sort of Zen concentration to get right. But it’s worth the effort.
I reached out to Mike Lata, James Beard Award-winning chef and co-owner of FIG in Charleston, whose Italian cuisine—including some gnocchi so plush I almost fell off my barstool—blew me away on a recent visit. Lata has been making a lot of risotto lately, and thinks it’s overdue for a restaurant comeback. Here are his tips, from the obvious to the obscure, for troubleshooting yours.
1. Use short-grain rice.
Short-grain rice “is built for” risotto, says Lata. “The way it cooks, breaks down, the starchiness of it … I’m sure the rice inspired the dish, and not the other way around.” He says that although you could make risotto with long-grain rice, wheat berries, farro, or barley, the right short-grain rice will leave “this glassy wonderful starch”—that silky texture you know and love.
2. Use the right short-grain rice.
Lata loves a short-grain rice called vialone nano, which he says “you’re not gonna find at your local grocery store, but if you are on a risotto crusade you’d find on Amazon.” His backups? Carnaroli rice, which is more widely available, or bomba, which he calls “the friendliest” (chef-speak for “almost foolproof”) for risotto. “It’s a Spanish rice we use for paella,” he says, and it’s “unfussy, although it doesn’t have the same starchiness as vialone nano.”
3. Practice makes perfect.
“Repetition is most important,” says Lata, for “anything you want to taste delicious. My advice, number one, would be to be committed to putting a risotto in your repertoire.”
4. Know the texture you prefer.
It’s good to know what texture you’re aiming for, but “be open-minded to different styles of risotto,” says Lata. “In some parts of Italy, the risotto is soupy, and in others it’s thick and creamy. What you prefer is going to change or oscillate over your experience of cooking it.”
5. When you start out, err on the side of overcooking.
“People try to shoot for that al dente texture,” says Lata, but this can be a mistake, as undercooked rice can get stuck in your teeth, and is quite unpleasant if it’s crunchy. “Err on the overcook,” he suggests. “I cook risotto 95 percent of the way. Some chefs might say it’s at 90 percent. I like my rice to be creamy, to have integrity, and to be individual grains.”
6. Don’t rinse your rice!
Some of us have gotten in the habit of rinsing our rice, but Lata frowns on the practice for risotto. “I’ve never done it. I felt like the starch is something you don’t want to get rid of.”
7. Pay a lot of attention to the liquid you choose.
If you think about it, says Lata, the broth is the risotto, so pay attention to yours. “My minimalist approach [is]: I want broth, and a nice broth. Not a rich, cloying broth, but the most beautiful chicken soup.” This is not the place, he notes, for something very strongly flavored or overwhelming, like a heavy shrimp or lobster stock, either of which he might cut with water or chicken broth. “You want a light, beautifully seasoned broth like a great bouillon.” By using some restraint, you can enjoy the flavor of the rice, too.
8. Keep an eye on temperature.
Add broth—which can’t be cold or too hot— slowly as you go. “Just below a simmer,” says Lata, who laughs, “If I say ‘simmer,’ someone’s going to boil it, and the stock will change flavors as it sits on the stove, losing liquid in volume.” Turn your broth down to just beneath a simmer. And make sure it’s warm enough! “Adding cold liquid to risotto is like adding cold milk to mashed potatoes.” (Blech.) The risotto itself should be cooking at a “gentle simmer,” he says.
9. You want friction, but not too much.
Mastering “just enough” friction is part of perfecting your technique; the grains gently nudging against one another are how you get that creamy consistency you love. “Imagine you dumped all the liquid in at once: The grains would be swimming around in broth and have no friction,” says Lata. “Conversely, ladling in a broth spoonful at a time” would create too much friction, and “would create a stickier, starchier product.” You want that gorgeous middle ground. Lata’s rule of thumb? “Cut the addition of liquid into three or four parts.”
10. Protein—if you need them—goes in at the end.
With risotto, there’s “no room for lots of protein, in my opinion,” says Lata. If you do want to add extra ingredients, whether it’s shrimp, lobster, chicken or mushrooms, they need to be gently added in right at the end, or they’ll mess with the texture of your rice. And be sparing! A few shrimp on top of risotto is plenty, says Lata.
11. Don’t overwork it.
“You’re not beating anything in ever,” warns Lata. Think about gently folding the rice back and forth, never overworking it. “Starch, butter, and stock will create a glazy, viscous binder to rice.” Indeed, if you’re finishing with butter—a common technique—cut it into small cold pieces, which will more easily emulsify without overworking.
12. Serve it immediately.
Grate cheese, divvy up cubes of butter, sear shrimp, and do anything else you need to do in advance before it’s time to hawkishly watch your risotto, says Lata. Because when the risotto is done? “It’s go time. This is an a la minute dish like making scrambled eggs; if you like them cooked beautifully you eat them the second they’re outta the pan.”
13. Reserve a little bit of stock!
That said, if someone wants seconds, you’re going to need a way to loosen up the settled starch in the pan, so reserve a little splash of warm stock and give it a stir, he suggests.
14. Salt as you go.
“At no point should what I’m cooking be not delicious or well-seasoned,” says Lata. Although “this doesn’t apply to reductions like veal stock or chicken stock or an almost fortified reduction,” which are typically neutral and not salted, he seasons his risotto as he goes. He’ll start with Kosher to flavor for the bulk of the rice, and finish with a few crystals of sea salt.
15. Use a heavy pan.
“Because risotto wants to stick,” says Lata, you’ve got to have a relatively thick pot. “A thin-gauge pan on an electric range—you’re doomed.” He’d suggest cast-iron or stainless steel with straight sides.
Remember that once you master a few techniques, risotto is a simple stunner. “You gotta have beautiful broth, good rice, and good technique,” and Lata, who reminds us that it’s the “simplest things done beautifully” that we remember.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.