Risotto: It’s not $!#%* rice pilaf!!!!

ArborioWhat makes the perfect risotto? A cynic might respond that with enough butter and cheese, you can make anything delicious. But although our two fatty friends go a long way toward creating heavenly goodness in quite a few dishes, they are not the miracle ingredients in a well executed risotto. They are more like the finishing touches on a dish whose success or failure has probably already been determined before the fat has joined the party.

Risotto, often made with arborio rice, is an exercise in stirring and patience (and stirring) and symmetry (and more stirring). Why symmetry? Because, the grains should feel creamy and luxurious in the mouth, yet be able to maintain their individual integrity. They should be soft enough to savor but firm enough to bite into. Symmetry (of heat distribution, of ingredient size, of liquid measurements, etc) is what helps ensure that your risotto does not glom together in a textureless mass. “There’s nothing worse than mushy risotto that’s gotten too puffy,” says Scott as he starts Wednesday’s demonstration. “We’re not making (expletive) rice pilaf!” So throughout the morning’s risotto demonstration, he keeps coming back to this concept of symmetry (make sure you add the same amount of liquid each time, keep the heat of the liquid and the heat of the risotto as close as possible, make your mirepoix and your rice grains the same size). Apparently, with risotto, we’re not just going to quickly chop or throw a bunch of things in a pot and scream, BAM! We’re going to be methodical so we can control our variables. That might sound a little boring or tedious, but trust me, the final product is BAM! enough.

Today, we are joined in the kitchen by longtime Nana’s regular Richard Bruch, who has brought his daughter Susie in for a risotto lesson. Susie, now living in California but in town for the Duke-Carolina basketball game, told me that she had stopped ordering risotto in restaurants, because after growing up on Nana’s risotto, she was almost always disappointed when she tried it elsewhere. Given Susie’s high level of cooking skills and personal knowledge of the country’s finest restaurants, I’d say that’s very high praise. Hopefully, after a morning in the kitchen with Scott, she’ll at least go back to California with the ability to treat herself to a risotto that won’t let her down

We begin with a short discussion of rice. Scott explains that short- or medium-grain rice (like arborio) work best for risotto because of the way such rice absorbs the liquid. He also notes that because we’re trying to keep things consistent that it’s ideal to use a brand of rice that packages its product using grains of more or less the same size. You don’t want some kernels taking on more liquid than others, which would occur in rice of different sizes because of their variable surface areas. In general, a package of rice with smaller kernels will be more expensive than larger grains and will have greater absorption properties because, as Dr Bruch added, of its increased surface area. I confess that I was desperately scanning the high school partition of my brain’s hard drive to figure out why the surface area of a smaller kernel would be greater than that of a larger one when thankfully Susie chimed in to clarify that he meant a greater surface area to volume ratio. Ah, ok. That makes sense. So, presumably if the surface area to volume ratio is greater in a small grain of rice, absorption to volume ratio will be greater in a small grain, too. But, I’m not a scientist and haven’t sought to verify that yet, but it is fascinating and makes for interesting conversation as we pour the hard, small grains into a pan of heated oil and wait for Nana’s risotto magic.

As I’ve said, the secret to risotto according to Scott is the consistency of proportions, sizes, and so forth. That extends even to the Mirepoix, which he throws in a robot coupe to chop it down to the same size as the rice grains. After each grain of risotto has been coated with the oil in the pan and stirred well, he adds the mirepoix and stirs and coats it with the oil as well. Rather than having variable chunks of carrots cooking unevenly amongst the rice, we now have bits of onion, carrots, and celery all cooking with rice of the same size. The flavors are more easily absorbed and the vegetables cook evenly. Next comes two cups of white wine. No great need for your best wine here. Today we used a boxed wine that calls itself a chardonnay. It is adequate for cooking because the alcohol will burn off by the end of the process anyway. I make a mental note to ask if that is why we’ve used the wine as our first liquid added, but forget because Scott is giving a tip about stirring.

Like hammering, which a beginner will almost always practice inefficiently (using the whole arm rather than allowing the weight of the hammer to do the work), stirring also  gives away a beginner, who will engage the arm and shoulder when a smaller, more efficient motion would do the trick.  Since risotto is an exercise in stirring endurance, Scott is showing us how to use the wrist and the angle of the spoon to save the arm so we can stir, stir, stir…..

We add beef short rib stock 2 cups at a time and it’s hard for me to describe how good this stock smells. (Note: we added 2 cups of stock, just as we earlier added 2 cups of wine, because we are maintaining sameness and controlling our variables.)  If you have the luxury of some beef short ribs stock on hand, people, DO NOT hesitate to use it in some risotto. The aroma and flavor will blow your mind. But watch the salt, because beef stock will have a tendency to enhance the saltiness of your final product.

Well I’m jumping ahead a bit because I’ve put off posting this long enough and need to get some sleep tonight. But I will just add that we learned a trick to partially cook the rice and then spread it out on sheet pans to cool it so that if you’re cooking this for a dinner party, you can spend time with your guests and reduce your pre-serving risotto cook time to 6-7 minutes–as opposed to disappearing for the 20 or more minutes it takes to cook the risotto straight through. After thinking about it, I can’t believe more recipes don’t suggest or explain this tip, especially since it must be a very common practice in the restaurant industry.

So we cool our rice, talk a little basketball, then get it going again. Our final product is amazing. After the final cups of stock are stirred in and the rice is puffed up into soft but ever so slightly al dente kernels, we turn off the heat and add the ever magical caramelized onion puree (I’m pretty sure COP is going to need its own blog post), the butter and grated cheese and it’s ready for us to try. I’m not gonna lie to you. It’s pretty much perfect–maybe a touch salty, but here’s the thing, it’s not at all mushy–even with the interrupted cooking process.  And nor is it the copious amounts of butter and cheese that gives it its creamy tastiness. I made a point to try the risotto before the butter and grana padano went in the pot, and I assure you it was already creamy and flavorful and of a just right texture. Like I said at the start, the butter and cheese are just icing. It’s the cake that counts. No amount of butter can save a mushy grain, quite the opposite. And, say it with me, we’re not making rice pilaf!

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