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The Science of Risotto (And a Lazy Way of Cooking It)
If you’re an avid follower of Masterchef Australia (as myself), you’re probably familiar with the ‘death dish’ (although it’s less of a death dish in the more recent seasons): risotto! On this cooking competition, more than one contestant has either been eliminated or lost assignments because of yet another failed risotto. Risotto nevertheless is ‘just’ a rice dish, often with the rice being the hero of the dish itself.
Even though making a regular homemade risotto isn’t necessarily that complicated, making one that meets the standard of risotto experts definitely is. How best to stir, when to add the liquid, how much cheese to add, all questions zooming through the heads of those poor contestants.
So is risotto really that complicated? Are those really preparation methods really set in stone? Only science will tell!
Rice & risotto – risotto rice
A good risotto, being a rice dish, starts with a suitable rice. Rice for a risotto should possess several properties:
- It should be able to absorb a lot of moisture. You cook risotto rice in a flavorful stock, you want to make sure this flavour actually gets into the rice.
- The final rice should not be sticky, the rice kernels should still flow along side each other easily. But, it should be creamy. (This eliminates sticky rice!)
- The rice kernel should not break apart from cooked, you still want a little bit of a bite in that kernel.
The standard rice recommended for use in risotto dishes is so called Arborio rice. That doesn’t mean it’s the only one! There are a lot of rice varieties that can work (see further down), depending on where you live and what you have available. So what makes this specific type of rice so suitable for risotto?
First of all it’s because of a rice property called chalk. And not the chalk you use to write on a blackboard. Chalk in rice is the non-translucent areas within the kernel, white spots within the rice. If you’re not a rice expert you have likely never noticed them at all. In most cases that is a good thing, chalk is seen as an unwanted property of rice. Chalky rice breaks more easily when milling, and it changes the bite of the kernel. For risotto rice though, this property is actually desirable and arborio rice has a decent amount of chalkiness. It gives that distinct bite.
What really causes chalkiness and how it really works, is still not fully understood.
Next up, some more in-depth rice and starch chemistry. Rice contains a large amount of starch and starch itself is made up of two different molecules: amylose & amylopectin. These two components make up the starch in rice (as they do in flour as well). Amylopectin is a large complex chain of sugars and is a pretty bulky molecule. Amylose on the other hand is one long chain of sugars and can settle in a more compact manner.
All rice varieties contain a different ratio of amylopectin and amylose, this influences the stickiness of the rice once cooked. A high amylopectin content (thus low amylose content) makes the rice more sticky and gluey than a high amylose content which makes the rice more loose.
This ratio also impacts the amount of moisture absorbed by the rice. A rice higher in amylose content absorbs more moisture during cooking. This is desirable for risotto.
For making a good risotto, you’d want an intermediate amount of amylose in there. You do want some of that creaminess, but not the excessive stickiness of low amylose rice varieties.
Even though arborio is the most commonly mentioned rice for rissoto, likely because it is widely available. THat does not mean it is the only one. There are various varieties that can fullfill the same requirements discussed above which each give a slightly different risotto. To name just a few:
- Carnaroli rice
- Vialone nano rice
- Baldo rice
- Roma rice
Making a risotto
Instructions for making a risotto often include a long process of adding small amounts of water at a time, limited amount of stirring and several more do’s and don’ts. Unfortunately, I’m a lazy and efficient cook and don’t like following long complex instructions if I don’t see a reason to.
I’ve did some testing in the kitchen and read a great post from the Food Lab and came to the conclusion that most of these can be skipped, especially, if, like me, you don’t necessarily want an extremely creamy risotto. So, no need to add water in small batches, just make sure that all rice is covered with water (else the bottom will cook faster), use a lid (to keep the top warmer) and stir it around once in a while.
I prefer a risotto which doesn’t flow, but can be placed in a little pile. Chefs might say it’s no proper risotto, but for me it is. So for those also not minding a ‘not perfect’ and slightly lazy risotto, don’t worry too much about all those instructions! You can make a jummy risotto without all the stirring, adding water and constant attention!
This recipe was inspired by Jamie Oliver, I think I found it in one of his books more than 4 years ago. In the meantime, it has become a favorite, varying with cheese, preparation method (making it easier and easier over time) and optimizing flavour.
We’re not the only one interested in making a great risotto. If you’d like to learn more, read this article from The Kitchn, the BBC or the article from the Food Lab.
Baccano, Riso per risotti: varietà ideali e consigli d’uso, 26-Nov-2015, link
Gerard van Dalen, Characterisation of rice using flatbed scanning and image analysis, In: Food policy, control and research, editor: Arthur P. Riley, p.149-186, link
IRRI, Breeding program management,2006, module 3, lesson 3, link
JAMES PATINDOL ANDYA-JANEWANG*, Fine Structures and Physicochemical Properties of Starchesfrom Chalky and Translucent Rice Kernels, 2003, J. Agric. Food Chem., 51, 2777-2784, link
I do use shitake mushrooms, softened in hot water and chopped, without stems, with excellent results