Risotto enjoys widespread popularity as a dish that strikes just the right balance between the fancy and the achievable.
In fact, nothing demonstrates more clearly the near-universal status this Northern Italian delicacy has acquired in modern society than what has to be one of the more memorable lines in recent TV history:
“I’ve never tried risotto. Who cares? Maybe I’m just waiting for the right risotto.”
Everyone and their mother has had risotto, it would seem, with the above line being met with surprise and bewilderment:
“Have you really never had risotto?”
Perhaps you’ve only heard the word but don’t know exactly what kind of dish it refers to; however, it would seem the time has passed when one could inquire about the specifics without committing a minor social faux pas.
Thankfully, the Internet is more forgiving, so let us go over the basics and then delve into the nitty-gritty of it all because risotto is an even richer and more complex dish than immediately meets the eye.
Types of Rice Used in Risotto
First things first: is risotto rice or pasta?
Risotto is a rice dish, but this initial categorization doesn’t answer much.
After all, like there are numerous types of pasta—spaghetti, penne, rigatoni, farfalle, you name it—so there is a myriad of rice varieties, or cultivars to use the technical term.
A common ‘gateway’ risotto, if you will, is the Minute Rice variety.
This refers to a highly processed product in which the rice has been pre-cooked and dehydrated for the sake of convenience and ease of preparation.
Given its nature as a processed food staple for mass consumption, this product optimizes for standardization and cost efficiency, so it invariably uses parboiled rice.
Strictly speaking, parboiled rice doesn’t refer to any particular cultivar, but rather to the process of partially boiling the rice while it is still inside the husk.
This method confers upon the resulting product certain pest-resistant properties and makes it more amenable to industrial processing.
In other words, quick meals offer a reasonably-priced facsimile of the underlying dish, but expect neither the method of preparation nor the type of rice to be even remotely close to authentic risotto.
As a substitute for the real deal, this type of risotto is propped up by cornstarch for extra consistency and creaminess and relies on food extracts for color.
Given their price point, I’d say these products do a surprisingly good job (except perhaps for the excessive sodium content,) but ultimately one should aim to create a lifestyle allowing for enough leisure time to cook authentic dishes using fresh ingredients.
At least that’s the aspiration because achieving such an idyll is much easier said than done in today’s frantic world…
While it is harder to find, carnaroli rice is the premier type of rice for use in risotto: its high starch content gives the dish its traditional creaminess, and the fact that it has a longer grain makes it more desirable compared to other more common varieties like arborio rice.
There is a misconception of risotto as just a fancy rice dish lathered in cream, but nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, starch is a particularly important factor because risotto shouldn’t need to have cream in it.
Admittedly, in a restaurant setting, whether it’s for risotto or carbonara, it makes sense to use cream to speed up the cooking process and/or to prevent the sauce from breaking.
In other words, the cream keeps the emulsion together and, without it, the sauce would break back into starch, liquid, and fat.
In their authentic form, these are dishes that, although simple, require one’s undivided attention, and that is a luxury reserved only for home cooks or to Michelin-starred establishments with perfect attention to detail—the kind of place that elevates chopping onions into an art form and where they peel off the outer layer of individual peas.
Take the classic dish of risotto with porcini mushrooms: we’re looking at a 15-minute cooking time for the mushrooms alone, another 4 to 5 minutes to brown the carnaroli rice, and THEN finally anywhere between 15 and 20 minutes to slowly cook the rice, first by adding a little bit of white wine and then vegetable stock.
That’s the level of care and dedication it takes to really bring out the starch and accentuate the flavor of the mushrooms: you can either put in the time, or compromise and add cream to the risotto as a sort of shortcut.
It’s similar with carbonara, as it’s still all about using the pasta’s natural starches to give the sauce that iconic creamy texture. This is accomplished by mixing in a little bit of pasta water directly into the sauce and into the guanciale or pancetta (or bacon if that’s all you can find).
The difference is that while risotto is a slower dish, the challenge with carbonara is to mix the sauce fast and vigorously enough that it doesn’t turn into scrambled eggs.
As you can see, leveraging natural starches found in rice and pasta is an essential part of Italian cuisine, so it makes sense to use the best rice for the job when preparing a nice risotto dish.
Enter Risotto-style Pasta
We started this article by establishing that risotto is a rice-based dish that originated in Northern Italy.
That is a fact, but what if I told you there was such a thing as risotto-style pasta?
What’s more, it would appear that the idea of cooking pasta like risotto isn’t some newfangled invention, but rather has a fairly established culinary tradition dating back at least to the 1970s, and probably to much earlier than that.*
*Footnote: Bittman, Mark; New York Times – Allowing Pasta to Drink to Its Fill; 11/27/2009
“But it’s at least old enough to have been demonstrated to me in Rome in 1976, and I imagine as old as pasta itself.”
Pasta water is packed full of starch, so it is common to take a couple of cups of pasta water as a way to bring all the ingredients together.
Risotto-style pasta takes this concept one step further, mimicking the traditional recipe of adding a splash of white wine at the beginning, followed by just enough vegetable stock to cover the pasta, rather than submerging it in boiling water as you normally would.
The key is then to continue stirring gently in order to reduce the liquid into a sauce, to which you can perhaps add mascarpone or similar cheeses (even Philadelphia cream cheese) in order to achieve an added level of creaminess.
So there you have it: risotto is understood as a rice-based dish, but it is actually also a cooking technique utilizing the naturally-occurring starches in ingredients like rice and pasta.