Your Risotto Questions, Answered

Published Categorized as Food
Photo of mushroom risottokarelnoppe /Depositphotos

Risotto is a notoriously tricky dish. In its simplest form, risotto is rice and generously salted water that cook together in a pot until the rice has absorbed most of the water and seeped some of its starches.

Of course, there are 1,001 variations on this basic theme: risotto can be red or white, plain and creamy or cheesy and gooey, vegan or carnivore…

No matter what kind of risotto you’ve set out to make, you’re probably here because the recipe failed to answer one or more of your questions. So let me tell you, my friend, that you’ve come to the right place!

In the rest of this post, I will answer the most common questions I get from friends and readers on the topic of risotto. So keep on reading if that sounds like what you came here to find out, and do ask your question in the comments below if you don’t happen to find it.

Should I Rinse Risotto Rice?

You’ve probably noticed that no risotto recipe ever calls for rinsing the uncooked rice.

Have you ever wondered why that is?

Don’t rinse your rice when making risotto. Doing so will wash away the starches from the surface of the grain. You want them to seep into the cooking water instead, making your risotto thick and creamy.

Still, some home cooks think that cooking unrinsed rice is not hygienic. 

And while I don’t have this quirk myself, if you do, I don’t blame you! As the Roman philosopher Terence once said, “nothing human is alien to me.”

So if you feel like you absolutely must rinse the rice before cooking, food writer Kenji Lopez-Alt shares a helpful trick at Cooking Light:

“If you rinse the rice in stock and drain it before toasting,” Lopez-Alt says, “the excess starch ends up in the cooking liquid as opposed to on the rice.”

“This allows you to fully toast the rice without affecting the thickening power of the starch, which subsequently gets added back to the pot along with the liquid.”

More on the merits of toasting the rice below.

Do You Add the Rice Before or After the Water Boils?

When is the best time to add the rice to the cooking water? Is it before—or after—you’ve brought it to a boil?

It’s one of those simple questions with a more complex answer.

The correct technique for preparing risotto is to briefly toast the rice in hot oil or butter and then add the liquid. Reduce the heat only after bringing the liquid to a boil; it will speed up your cooking.

Professional chefs call this technique parching. It kickstarts the gelatinization process of the amylopectin starches in the rice, which, in turn, keeps the grains from sticking to one another during cooking.

Another critical thing when making risotto is to keep scraping off the grains of rice that build up on the sides of the pan every now and then to cook it more evenly.

How Much Liquid Should I Use?

One of the risotto questions I get asked the most is, “How much liquid should I use?”

Without a doubt, this is one of the most disputed topics in the world of cooking. So, seriously, if anyone claims to have the correct answer, take it with a grain of salt (or swallow it with a bit of broth, maybe?).

Some say you only need three cups. But, in my experience, that’s far too small of an amount. The rice will soak it up too quickly, coming out stiff and undercooked.

Here’s my rule of thumb:

To make risotto, you need roughly 4 cups of liquid for every 1 cup of rice. The exact amount of liquid tends to vary by +/- 1/2 cups depending on the rice variety, the amount of heat, and the total cooking time.

For readers who follow the metric and not imperial system, that equates to 880 milliliters of liquid per 220 grams of rice. Whichever system you’re using to measure it, the ratio is always roughly 4:1, plus/minus 1/2.

Why the plus/minus?

Some of us think it’s because certain rice varieties absorb more moisture than others.

The answer, however, is even simpler: it’s because some types of rice take longer to cook through than others—which means that more of the water evaporates during cooking.

Can I Make Risotto Ahead of Time

The short answer is “yes,” as long as you par-cook it.

Par-cooking is a technique that chefs use to partially prepare food ahead of time, so that they can cook and plate it quickly to order during service. 

Thanks to this technique, a restaurant kitchen can keep churning out steamy and creamy risottos by the minute, whereas home cooks like you and me have to lean over the stove for 20 minutes to prepare risotto for two.

That’s right! Contrary to what most people think, restaurant risotto is seldom cooked to order.

As with most cooking techniques professional chefs use, par-cooking rice for risotto sounds much more intimidating than it is to do in practice.

So here’s how you can do it in your home kitchen:

Normally, you’d use 4 cups of liquid per 1 cup of rice. However, since you’re cooking the rice partially, you’re going to use a cup less.

In a saucepan over medium heat, add approximately 3 cups of liquid per 1 cup of rice and cook for about 15 minutes, stirring slowly and constantly. When it’s almost cooked, take it swiftly off the heat.

The trick to par-cooking risotto rice is never to overcook it. Otherwise, it will turn mushy—and you’ll have to start over.

So make sure to take the rice off the heat as soon as it’s cooked through on the inside but still firm to the bite on the outside. 

Essentially, you’re cooking the rice to 90% doneness. Then, you leave it out if you plan to eat it within one hour or let it cool down completely and store it in the fridge for up to 5 days in case you plan to cook it later.

When the time comes to serve, take the par-cooked rice out of the fridge and sauté your vegetables or meat over medium heat while it’s getting up to room temperature.

Reduce the heat to medium-low when you’re done sautéing the veggies or meat. Add the rice and 1 cup of liquid and finish cooking for 5 minutes till your risotto comes out creamy and tender but not overly soft.

Can I Leave Risotto Out?

I used to be blessedly ignorant of what I’m about to share with you until several years ago when I got a bad case of food poisoning from a local restaurant.

You should never leave risotto (and rice in general) out for more than one hour. Instead, leave any leftovers to cool down, transfer them to an airtight food storage container, and store them in the fridge.

Rice grains can contain Bacillus cereus (also known as B. cereus), a species of toxin-producing bacteria whose endospores are highly heat-resistant and can easily survive cooking temperatures.

Left out for a long time, those endospores can germinate into bacteria, and the bacteria may produce toxins that can cause food-borne illness. Unfortunately, reheating the rice won’t eliminate those toxins.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ingesting these toxins can cause nausea, vomiting, and stomach problems with an onset time of 1 to 6 hours and a duration of approximately 24 hours.

To put it simply, the longer risotto is left out, the more unsafe it is to eat. By that time, you positively don’t want it in your body.

Can I Freeze Risotto?

Risotto is a dish that many people love to make and eat, but not everyone knows how to store.

Some people will tell you that you can’t freeze risotto because the texture will be off, and they’re generally right. Here’s why.

Leftover risotto should always be refrigerated but never frozen. Rice turns excessively hard and grainy when kept at freezer temperature and will remain so even after it’s thawed.

Can I Reheat Risotto?

Yes, you can reheat risotto.

Through much trial and error, which regular readers of this blog have most probably read about, I’ve concluded that:

You shouldn’t waste your time trying to reheat risotto in the oven. You can try as much as you want to do it “right,” but it will always come out stiff and dry.

The best ways to reheat risotto are on the stove or in the microwave. However, both of these ways require you to “bring it back to life” by adding a little liquid (best to save some during cooking).

For every 1 cup of risotto, bring 1/4 cup of broth (whichever the recipe called for) to a simmer over medium heat on your stovetop. Add the rice in and reheat, stirring, for 5 minutes.

Alternatively, you can put the cold risotto in a microwavable bowl, mix it with a bit of liquid, wine, or, in case you don’t have either at home, water, and microwave it for 3-4 minutes.

What Else Can I Do With Leftover Risotto?

As much as you love risotto, eating it several days in a row may not be the best thing that ever happened to your taste buds. As usual, we’ve got you covered.

We asked foodies about their favorite ways to use up leftover risotto. They recommended turning it into deep-fried Italian rice balls called “arancini,” making risotto pancakes in your non-stick pan or cast iron skillet, or preparing a creamy mushroom risotto soup. Go and check their recommendations out.

Can I Make Risotto With Basmati Rice?

Traditionally, risotto is prepared with Arborio rice, a stubby and starchy Italian short-grain rice variety that can absorb as much as five times its weight in liquid as it cooks.

But if you don’t happen to have Arborio rice in your pantry, you could substitute Basmati rice for it. A long-grain rice variety from India, Basmati rice is highly aromatic and lower in carbs and starches yet still capable of yielding a fluffy and creamy risotto.

Can I Make Risotto With Regular Rice?

When it comes to risotto, it’s best to use Italian short-grain rice varieties like Arborio, Carnaroli, Vialone, Nano, and Baldo rice. Still, many home cooks have never heard of them, and not all grocery stores carry them.

Does that mean you can’t make risotto at all?

Theoretically, you could use any rice for risotto. But if you end up using regular rice or any other long-grain rice variety, keep in mind that your risotto won’t turn out as dense and luscious as it otherwise would.

Can I Make Risotto With Brown Rice?

Brown rice is higher in fiber, minerals, and vitamins than white rice, so it shouldn’t surprise that many households prefer it.

But can you use it for risotto?

Yes, you can use brown rice instead of white Arborio rice for risotto. However, since it’s unmilled and contains less starch, it will take two to three times longer to cook and turn out more nutritious but noticeably less creamy.

One thing that surprises most people I talk to is that you can still buy brown short-grain rice, and it’s a much more suitable ingredient for preparing risotto compared to brown long-grain rice.

Unless you’ve chosen brown rice for a specific reason, the better substitute for Arborio rice is its Japanese cousin, sushi rice.

Arborio rice and sushi rice are both short-grain rice varieties with a similar size and shape. The difference is that Arborio rice remains firm to the bite in its center, whereas sushi rice comes out tender and soft all the way through.

Why Is Arborio Rice So Good for Risotto?

Rice consists primarily of hard starches and soft starches.

Arborio rice has just 10% of the hard starch called amylose and as much as 90% of the soft starch amylopectin, which makes it nice and tender on the outside, but firm to the bite and chewy on the inside.

When cooked, Arborio rice seeps plenty of amylopectin into the cooking water, thickening the sauce with a buttery and creamy consistency as it boils.

If there is such a thing as the perfect rice variety for risotto, Arborio rice comes pretty darn close to it.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.