No, this isn’t the sound coming out of your cereal bowl. This is the sound of rice toasting in the pan, just before liquid is added for a creamy risotto.
Toasting the rice is an essential step in developing flavor in this traditional Italian dish, but the same technique can be applied to a variety of grains available outside of the boot-shaped country.
Risotto is more than just a single recipe. It is a method that you can use as a basic guideline for endless variations.
For help on perfecting this recipe, I turned to my go-to Head Kitchen Nana, Chef Lidia Bastianich. In this interview from 2013, she talks about the sound of the rice toasting in the pan – how cooking risotto uses your sense of sound as much as taste…
Using Lidia’s experience and my insight, here 6 Essential Steps to Making the BEST Healthy, Vegan Risotto:
Step One: Choose Short Grains
As Lidia says “It all begins with the rice”. She discusses the three types of short-grain rice traditional to Italian risotto: Arborio (the one most of us know), baldo, and carnaroli (Lidia’s preferred rice because it “gives me the best creaminess”). But the same risotto technique can be applied to a myriad of grains available at today’s market. Sticking with Lidia’s preference for short grain rice, I also recommend smaller members of the grain family. This smaller size will mean more surface area for starches to be released, creating a creamy, rich texture. Small grains like quinoa, millet, and barley are optimal. Avoid long grain rice, basmati rice, wheat berries, and rye berries. These sturdy grains won’t breakdown as easily and will leave you with more of a pilaf than a creamy risotto.
Step Two: Flavor the Broth with the Risotto Star
Once you have your grain of choice, the next star ingredient depends on the season and your preferences. One of the beautiful aspects of learning the basic risotto recipe is that you can personalize it to fit your tastes. In the spring, an asparagus or fennel risotto is called for. Summer beckons for Corn Risotto or roasted red peppers. Fall brings on the many varieties of pumpkin and squash, while winter can make use of mushrooms, carrots, beets, and roasted garlic.
For instance, use your asparagus and fennel stalks to flavor the broth for those respective recipes. The cobs from shucked corn infuse corn risotto broth. A little bit of pureed roasted red peppers goes a long way for flavoring broth. Mushroom stems and carrot scraps can impart more intense flavor and color. The only exceptions to this advice are members of the cruciferous family. Broccoli, kale, and cauliflower can have an off-putting flavor when cooked in stock for a long period of time. Just as you would avoid using these in vegetable stock, also avoid using them in a risotto broth. If you still want to use them, simply add small florets or bite-sized pieces towards the end of cooking.
Step Three: Sweat Aromatics
Aromatics include onion, shallots, and garlic. Dried herbs like thyme, sage, rosemary, and red chili flake can also be included. Traditionally, these aromatics would be cooked over medium-low heat in a good amount of olive oil or butter. However, you can cut the fat for a healthier version by just sweating in a dry pan or with a splash of water. The key is to cook the aromatics over medium-low heat, with a dash of salt, and the lid on. This will help to gently bring out the moisture and develop enticing aromas (hence “aromatics”) without burning. If you are new to oil-free cooking technique, I recommend sweating the aromatics in a couple of tablespoons of water. With a good-quality pan and a little practice, though, you can sweat onions and shallots without any water at all; they’re natural juices will release enough liquid to prevent burning.
Step Four: Toast the Rice
This is Snap, Crackle…POP time! Once the aromatics soften, add your rice or grain to the pan and dry toast for only about 2 minutes. This will bring out a nutty flavor from the grain and help keep retain some of the al dente texture to the final dish. This step doesn’t take long – once you hear that Snap, Crackle…POP and get wafts that remind you of toasted almonds, you’re ready to move on and add liquid.
Step Five: Add Wine
When the rice is done toasting, add about ½-1 cup of wine to deglaze the pan. The wine brings a level of acidity that will create another layer of flavor in the final dish. Allow the wine to cook off for a few minutes, until the pan is nearly dry again. You don’t want to actually drink wine in the final risotto, but adding it at the beginning of cooking will enhance the complexity – providing a slight acidic brightness to balance the deep inherent richness. Plus, once the bottle of wine is open, you’ve got something to sip while you’re hanging out in the kitchen. A general table white wine like chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc work well. If you’re making a red-inspired risotto, though (like with beets or red peppers), feel free to use a red blend like Cabernet or Pinot Noir.
Step Six: Add the Stock Slowly…and Stir Vigorously
Make sure your flavored stock is at a low simmer before adding it to your risotto. The first time, you can add a little over a cup. After that, you’ll only want to add about ¾ cup at a time. Each time you add the stock, give the rice a vigorous stir to help release some of starches from the outside of the rice. Keep your pot of stock covered and at low heat. This will help prevent your stock from over-reducing or boiling off before your rice is done cooking. Traditional rice will only take about 12 to 16 minutes. Whole grains like farro and barley can take closer to 20 minutes. Be sure to taste as you go to find that ideal consistency: creamy with a slight al dente bite.
Step Seven: Finish with Color and Umami
In the last few minutes of cooking, you’ll stir in bite-sized pieces of your star ingredient. Once the risotto is done cooking, though, traditional recipes have you turn off the heat and stir in a heap of cheese, butter, or olive oil. These fats help add a rich “umami” flavor that make the dish the ultimate comfort food. For an oil-free, vegan version, I suggest 1-2 tablespoons of nutritional yeast. A little goes a long way, but this “cheezy” plant-based ingredient will add creaminess and that rich, umami flavor.
Step Eight: Eat Immediately
Risotto waits for no one. In minutes you can go from creamy perfection to congealed blob. Grab a spoon and dive in when it’s hot.
Chef’s Tip: If you do need to slow the cooking or want to serve risotto for a dinner party, take a tip from the restaurant world. A day ahead of time, you can cook risotto until it’s about 5 minutes from being done, where it still is a bit too chewy to enjoy. Remove it from the heat, cool quickly by pouring onto a baking sheet, and refrigerate. Then, to finish, simply pick up where you left off: Bring the risotto to a simmer in a wide pan. Add simmering stock, stir vigorously, and finish cooking those last few minutes. When it’s ready, though, you still want to serve it right away.
The basic Ratio for making risotto is:
1 cup rice + 3 cups liquid = 2 cups cooked
You can even use this ratio to make the sweet version of risotto – Rice Pudding. The liquid just becomes sweetened non-dairy almond or coconut milk instead of stock.
Now that you have the Eight Essential Steps and a basic ratio for making the dish, start having fun experimenting. Use these tips to try out some different dinner recipes. Here are some inspirations to get you started. Head’s up: The recipe from Food and Wine include butter and cheese, but simply omit the butter and swap out the cheese for 1-2 tbsp. of nutritional yeast for low-fat, vegan versions.
WYNC: Last Chance Foods: Lidia’s Common Sense Risotto, by Joy Y. Want, Oct 18, 2013, http://www.wnyc.org/story/last-chance-foods-lidias-commonsense-risotto/
Epicurious Blog: Risotto-Making Tips From Lidia Bastianich, by Sara Bonisteel, 04/12/12 at 05:00 PM, http://www.epicurious.com/archive/blogs/editor/2012/04/risotto-tips-from-lidia-bastianich.htm
About the Author:
Chef Katie Simmons
Katie is a Personal Chef based in Chicago. She specializes in creating delicious, healthy recipes for those with special dietary concerns like gluten-free, oil-free, plant-based, and low-residue. Outside of the kitchen, she is a Fitness Instructor for Equinox, with over 13 years experience in the fitness industry, and a blogger for Kuli Kuli Foods. For fun, she loves to travel, with her most recent travel involving 10 days of hiking in the Patagonia of Argentina and Chile.