Alan Tangren: Is it rice or risotto? |

Alan Tangren: Is it rice or risotto?

Dear Alan: I look for risotto on the menu whenever I visit an Italian restaurant. Is this something I can make at home?

Alan: Risotto is Italian comfort food. It’s a delicious dish of carefully flavored rice that makes its own creamy sauce. Like making fresh pasta, many home cooks consider risotto to be labor intensive restaurant fare.

But risotto can be a one-pot dinner, one that makes almost everyone happy. It can be made with just about anything edible; vegetables, cheese, meat, seafood, even citrus fruit,

Risotto is made with specific varieties of short grain rice that contain a high proportion of starch that easily dissolves in liquid, known as amylopectin. It is this starch that thickens the liquid and creates a creamy texture, while the rest of the rice grain stays intact and has a certain amount of “bite”.

Northern Italy is the birthplace of many of these varieties of rice, but many local markets stock Arborio, a high quality risotto rice now grown in the Central Valley.

Before you buy the rice, make sure you have a pot of the right material and size. The best cooking vessel is a pot with a thick alloy bottom, coated with stainless steel. This provides the ideal amount of steady, even heat needed to cook the rice properly before the liquid is added.

Also good is enameled cast iron. Steer away from aluminum or lightweight stainless steel, which may cause scorching.

The pot should have a diameter such that when raw rice is added, it’s between ¼ and ½ inch deep in the pot.

Next, make sure you have a lightly seasoned, but flavorful, broth or stock. I like to use my own home-made chicken stock, but you can also use vegetable, mushroom or shellfish broth as well. A good shortcut is to mix canned beef broth and plain water, or water in which you have blanched vegetables.

Every risotto starts off with a base of onions sautéed in butter or oil. The rice is added and allowed to cook until every grain is coated with fat. Then the slow addition of broth begins. The rice should not be flooded or allowed to dry out. This gradual addition of liquid is what encourages the starch to turn creamy.

Cooking time will vary a bit each time you make risotto, but will mostly be 20 to 30 minutes after the rice goes in. Taste often during the cooking, for both seasoning and doneness. As the rice gets close to being done, a grain you bite into will no longer be chalky in the middle, but still have a little resistance.

At this point add enough broth for the rice to be slightly loose, but not runny. Stir in some butter and a good handful of fresh-grated Parmesan cheese until all is melted. Turn off the heat and let the rice sit, uncovered for a couple of minutes to finish cooking. Serve into individual bowls. In Italy they like to let it cool for another minute before eating.

Precook ingredients ahead of time that you want to add to the risotto; add them toward the end of cooking. This works well for vegetables like asparagus or artichoke hearts or sautéed mushrooms.

If you want to add raw ingredients as the rice is cooking, count on double the time it usually takes. For example, peas or shrimp that may take 4 or 5 minutes to cook in boiling water should be added about 10 minutes before the risotto is done.

Risotto with butter and Parmesan

5 C chicken stock

3 Tb butter, divided

2 Tb olive oil

1/3 cup fine diced onion

2 C Arborio rice

½ C dry white wine


1/2 C grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for the table

Measure the chicken stock into a saucepan and heat to a simmer. Turn off the heat.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter and the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until soft and translucent. Add the rice and and cook, stirring now and then, until the rice is translucent, about 4 minutes. Do not let it brown.

Add the wine to the sautéed rice and cook, stirring often, until the wine is absorbed. Add 1/2 cup of the warm stock and cook at a vigorous simmer, stirring occasionally.

Keep adding stock ½ cup at a time, every time the rice thickens. After 12 minutes, start tasting the rice for doneness and seasoning. Cook until the rice is tender, but still has a firm core. Add a little more stock to loosen the rice.

Add the remaining tablespoon of butter and the Parmesan. Stir vigorously to mix well and develop the creaminess of the starch. Turn off the heat and let the rice sit for 2 minutes. Add a little more stock before serving if the rice is too thick. Serve with more Parmesan on the side.

Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at Contact him at

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