Risotto: Northern Italy’s Classic Comfort Food

When it comes to Italian comfort food, you might immediately think of pasta. Although pasta is a big part of Italian cuisine…  in northern Italy another dish reigns supreme.

Many centuries ago in the fertile Po Valley, a little round rice was making its way onto the tables of hungry Italian families. Named for a small town in the region, Arborio rice soon became a staple ingredient for a delicious “comfort food” among the local people. Over time, this dish became known as Risotto.

It All Starts with the Rice

First of all, risotto is not a type of rice. It is a dish made with a particular kind of rice. Arborio is probably the best-known variety, especially in the United States since it is readily available. Arborio is a short, plump starchy rice that, when cooked properly, has a very creamy finish.

Arborio is not the only rice that can be used to make risotto. Vialone Nano and Carnaroli are two lesser known, but popular varieties. Vialone Nano has a slightly firmer finish and is considered gourmet by risotto aficionados. Carnaroli has an even firmer texture than Vialone Nano and offers a very delicate taste. Both are available in specialty shops and online.

Although risotto is made from rice, that doesn’t mean you can make it out of any old rice you happen to have in your pantry. That lovely long grain rice you enjoy with your homemade stir-fry doesn’t have the right starch content to create the creamy texture of a true risotto. You must start your dish with one of the three rice varieties from northern Italy to have a true risotto.

The Quest for the “Perfect” Risotto

Once you start looking around for some great risotto recipes, you may soon find yourself ready to call it quits. Most everyone has the same reaction when they read their first risotto recipe…  “I have to stand and stir this stuff for how long?!”

Risotto “purists” will tell you that “stand and stir” is the ONLY way to make real risotto. In a sense, they are right. Slowly adding liquid and continually stirring the mixture produces perfect creamy risotto. The reason why purists prefer this method is simple: the slower the rice absorbs the liquid, the creamier the risotto will be. As the rice absorbs the liquid, it releases its starch. The slower the starch is released, the creamier the end result.

Does that mean you are chained to the stove if you want a creamy risotto? Do you have to spend an eternity adding small amounts of liquid and stirring over and over and over again forever?

Not really. Let’s take a look at some alternate methods for cooking risotto.

Acceptable Risotto Shortcuts

There are techniques for cooking creamy risotto that don’t depend on the “stand-and-stir” method. In fact, you can actually get a creamy risotto by letting your oven do most of the work.

To make “baked” risotto, you start by sautéing some onions and garlic in olive oil on your cooktop in an oven-proof pot. Then, add some dry white wine, rice and some chicken stock to the pan. Cover and pop into a pre-heated oven until the excess moisture is absorbed. To finish, stir in a little more broth, butter, and grated Parmesan cheese.

Another shortcut some cooks are enjoying is using an electric slow cooker made especially for risotto. These are combination ‘stir free’ risotto cookers, rice cookers, and slow cookers. You will still need to sauté the onion and rice in oil, then add wine and broth, but you will then cover the pot and only stir once about halfway through the process. This is truly easy risotto.

Would a risotto “purist” approve of these shortcuts? Probably not – but sometimes you just want to get a good meal on the table without too much fuss.

Are you ready to dig into some classic northern Italian comfort food? Then skip the pasta and try your hand at making an authentic creamy risotto that would make any cook in the Po Valley proud!