Doing Right by Risotto

No fancy gear or special training required: Producing stellar risotto is simply a matter of listening to your rice

CERTAIN FOODS BEG to be cooked to music. Risotto is one. Get a rhythm going, and all that stirring takes on a new dimension. A little dancing, some backup vocals and suddenly 20 minutes have vanished, and you’ve built up an appetite for the fabulously guilty, carb-loaded, butter-fattened, Parmesan-laced pleasure ahead of you.

There are those who presume that some magic—or at least years of tutelage at a side—is required to pull off a just-so risotto: a little creamy or soupy, depending on the recipe, but still retaining the integrity of the individual grains. In fact, it’s simply a matter of choosing the best rice, imbuing it with the right boozy note and making sure those precious kernels are never kept waiting for their next drink nor left drowning in too much of a good thing (though a good soundtrack certainly helps.)

Before cooking comes shopping. Don’t automatically reach for the Arborio rice at your local supermarket. It is dependable, but Carnaroli rice produces the very creamiest of risottos, and Vialone Nano rice is the right choice for a soupy base and plump kernel.

Carnaroli, from the Piedmont region of northern Italy, has a high starch content, allowing it to absorb copious quantities of liquid while maintaining its bite. For this reason, it takes a few minutes longer to cook than Arborio. Vialone Nano hails from the Veneto region of northern Italy, where cooks often add shellfish broth to seafood risottos right before serving them. Arborio, named for a town in the Po Valley, where it is grown, is now also cultivated in other countries, including the U.S. That said, I have found that Italian-grown Arborio rice retains its texture better than those domestically harvested.

Always lightly “toast” the rice with butter, oil and onion for a minute or two before adding the first ladle of liquid. The flavors will infuse the kernel and the heat will draw out the rice’s character. I then often add a splash of white wine or Prosecco before moving on to the stock. If I’m making a wild mushroom risotto, I might turn to Vin Santo or Madeira; when using fennel, I take a cue from Ruth Rogers of London’s River Café and use vodka.

Next, you can go one of two ways. Stick with tradition and stir, stir, stir, and the risotto should be done in 20 to 25 minutes. Or, do as the Romans do, and use a pressure cooker. This is the secret of Italian cooks seeking to keep their heritage alive and their families happy in the contemporary time crunch. It yields, effortlessly, near-perfect results that could fool many a into thinking you’d been diligently standing over the pot. If set on high, the pressure cooker should produced finished risotto in six to nine minutes, depending on the machine and the amount of rice.

If you choose to stir, remember: Unlike Uncle Ben’s, risotto wants to be stirred more or less continuously as it cooks. It does not take well to drowning, preferring instead to drink half a cup of simmering broth at a time. It likes a lively heat. If you can’t hear it cook, the temperature is too low, but if the liquid sizzles loudly on contact, the heat is too high.

Once the rice is cooked through, but still offers a little resistance, immediately remove your saucepan from the heat. I like to add a knob of butter and a ladle of broth and cover the pan while I call everyone to the table. This keeps the rice moist and hot, which is essential. If you want to heat your plates or bowls, now is the time. If that’s too much trouble, add a few spoonfuls of broth to each dish before plating: It will warm the dish and keep the rice ever so very slightly soupy.

There are so many variations to try, including the four wildly different risottos at right. But no matter the recipe, the rice should never cede center stage—don’t mask it with excessive seasoning or ingredients. I’m also a bit of stickler and won’t make risotto unless I have homemade stock on hand. Make a large batch and freeze half: With rice in your pantry and a wedge of Parmesan in your fridge, dinner will never be more than a half-hour away.