7 Myths, Facts, and Pro Tips for Even Better Risotto

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

If you met me on the street and got me talking, sooner or later I’d probably bring up risotto. I want to tell everyone I meet not to be afraid of it! There’s so much about risotto that scares people, and I think that’s really because there are too many myths floating around and not enough fact.

So since I probably won’t run into you on the street anytime soon, I am here to set things straight right now. Here’s what you need to know to make awesome risotto.

The Myths

For some reason or another, risotto carries a bit of allure with it. That very well could be that there are couple of myths that come with it that deserve to be set straight.

Risotto is fussy.

Somewhere along the line, risotto got a reputation for being intimidating and finicky and it was left for only advanced cooks and nice Italian restaurants to make. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, risotto is such an approachable, adaptable meal that it’s on my meal plan weekly. It’s really just as much of a pantry dinner as pasta. Sure, it needs some attention and frequent stirring, but that stirring is easy! Plus, I think you’ll find it quite meditative.

You can’t make it without wine.

One ingredient you’ll find in pretty much any risotto recipe is wine, which may cause some cooks to skimp attempting it, whether they’re cooking for kids or don’t drink alcohol. The truth is, you can make a great risotto without any wine at all. You can either skip it or swap it in for a non-alcoholic alternative.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

The Facts

Once myths are uncovered, it’s time to understand the basics of risotto. In its most simple form, risotto is really just rice that’s been cooking in a pan of broth and stirred during this cooking process so that the grains’ starches are released and the dish gets creamy.

There are a few rice varieties to choose from.

The reason risotto is creamy is because the grains release starch as they are cooked. That means you want a rice that has a high starch content. Short- and medium-grain rice are your best options, but their are three varieties that stand out among the rest: Arborio, carnaroli, and Vialone nano. While I have my personal preference, the fact is that all three work great.

You don’t necessarily need a recipe every time.

Yes, there are lots of risotto recipes out there — including right here! — but to be completely honest, you don’t necessarily need one each and every time. Making risotto is really more of technique than a hard-and-fast recipe and once you understand the method, by learning from a base recipe, you can riff on it any way you like.

There’s one pan to make risotto in that surpasses the rest.

While you can make good risotto in a sauce or soup pot, I’ll claim that a heavy-bottomed, straight-sided skillet — something in the 10- to 12-inch range — is ideal for cooking risotto. My colleague Meghan agrees. Not only does it result in creamier risotto that cooks faster, but it’s also a common tool in almost every kitchen. It doesn’t matter if it’s stainless steel, nonstick, or cast iron — whatever you have will do the trick.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

The Pro Tips

Once the myths have be shattered and you’ve learned the basics, it’s time to gain some extra intel on how to make an even better pan of risotto. These pro tips are the key to ensuring your risotto rivals any restaurant’s.

Don’t skip warming the broth.

Most risotto recipes call for bringing the broth you’ll be cooking your rice with to a simmer before using it. This is one step you shouldn’t skip. If you ladle cold or even room-temperature broth into the pan, you’ll risk lowering the temperature of the risotto as it cooks. This can cause some of the grains to cook more slowly as they come up to temperature and, eventually, you’ll end up with a pan of unevenly cooked rice. Warming the broth to a simmer standardizes the cooking times and temperatures, which results in a better end product.

Remember the secrets to knowing when it’s done.

There is one part about risotto that I’ll admit to being tricky: knowing when it’s done. Since the total cooking time can range between 20 to 30 minutes, understanding a few key signals can make all the difference. Beyond simply tasting the rice to see if it’s al dente, if you run your spatula through the risotto, the risotto should flow slowly back to fill in the space. Better yet? Try the smear test, where smearing a grain on the countertop will show whether it’s undercooked, overcooked, or just right.