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Rice has been a part of Italian fare for roughly as long as pasta has, and riso’s spread was estimated to have begun around the 15th century after being imported from Asia. Risotto, the creamy rice dish we all love to stir (or order) up, comes from the northern regions of Italy, like the ones around Milan, where it is served with the distinctive yellow hue of saffron and delicious, savory undertones. 

There are many versions to be had, from truffled to tomato-y, and when Italian food came to America, the menu depended greatly on the region its owners or workers immigrated from. Though northern cuisines, which include risotto, saw a boom in the fine dining scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s, “red sauce joints” and their prevalence reflect the more heavy southern Italian and Sicilian influence in America, both then and today.

The dominance of southern Italian food in America is perhaps why so many home cooks view risotto as a finicky, luxury dish—or maybe it’s simply the high price tag it tends to have at restaurants. In fact, risotto is a highly accessible, flexible dish that’s in my core at-home meal rotation—and it should be in yours, too.

How risotto is made

Risotto tends to be an expensive dish when ordered in a restaurant because it needs to be made to order. You can’t really half-ass it, or it will come across in the texture, and making huge volumes of plates you can’t prep at least partially ahead of time doesn’t always translate to profit. 

The steps to actually make risotto are straightforward: oily, sautéed shallot coats grains of rice that are toasted in a large, wide, pan before deglazing with white wine. Then, slowly simmer the rice in small amounts of heated broth until each batch absorbs, adding any additional protein or veggies to heat through, and finishing with cheese and butter before serving. Even though there is one “right way” to make the real thing, the basic concept of risotto-type cooking can be applied to many other dishes (like savory oatmeal), and we’ve got tips to make it your own at home, where it doesn’t cost $28-42 per serving.

All the stirring is precisely why we see risotto as notoriously hard to make, but there are other, less official methods. The truth is, it’s only tricky until you get it down; after that, making risotto comes easily. And while labor-intensive foods can sometimes be stressful to make, the stirring, should you choose a traditional method, is actually a great way to get your mind off a long day at work and into your family time. In fact, I find making risotto to be a stress reliever

Besides finding the stirring itself therapeutic, a huge reason I find risotto relaxing to make is because it’s actually an incredibly flexible dish that can be made with just about anything I have on hand. For that reason, risotto is a great at-home option if you’re looking to make a hearty, filling meal that costs very little.

For risotto at home, use what you have

Shallots tend to be more expensive than regular onions, so that is an easy place to pinch some pennies. If you are trying to buy fewer items to begin with, using a different allium altogether works fine, too. Sweet onion, red onion, and even pearl onions could sub in a pinch, all delicious when paired with the right accompaniments. Even ramps, garlic greens, and scallions (or spring onion) are very tasty here, albeit much quicker to cook; keep that in mind so as not to overly brown the wispy varieties when cooking the rice.

Wine, the deglazing step, can also be a deterrent for a home cook—if you don’t have any to cook with or even to drink, don’t fret. The key to deglazing is acid, so it’s easy to swap the wine for something else. A bit of watered down vinegar, lemon juice, or even pickle or olive brine can join the team for you here, adding interest and seasoning in one shot. 

Same goes for the fats—while using olive oil and butter are the OGs, I have successfully used bacon grease, coconut oil, and even sesame oil in different risotto mashups. This means you should get weird, schmaltz it up for chicken-y goodness, try toasted hazelnut as a finisher, whatever you fancy.

Don’t be surprised that this advice also extends to the broth you use to cook the rice and even the rice itself. Try a cheese rind brodo for a truly excellent take, or even watered-down cream of celery soup for a uniquely savory twist. 

Rice is just one grain; people use pastas like orzo and couscous for one-pot, brothed-up grain dishes all the time. Bulgur, other short-grain rice, and quinoa can be imbued with the creamy cooked texture of risotto if you prepare with the same technique and don’t over or undercook them. 

As for the accessories, use what you love. If that’s broccoli and cheddar, Cacio e Pepe, or seafood stew, more power to you. Fresh, frozen, dried, whatever—truly. We’ve even prepared risotto with Thanksgiving leftovers, stirring in a spoonful of gravy to make a rich, rice-y delight. Dried fancy mushrooms are easy to keep on hand for an impressive meal, and if you have frozen broth, cooking wine, and typical basics like grating cheese and onion, you can make a risotto. 

Work smarter, not harder 

There are incredible recipes out there to suit every single style. You can now make a risotto in a slow cooker, an instant pot, or even with Kenji Lopez-Alt’s (almost) no stir method. Recipe Tin Eats, one of my favorite recipe publications, makes a baked version with lemony aromas and uses a 1.25 to 4 ratio for broth to rice for a hands-off preparation. 

The really important things to nail are the texture of the rice, which should have some bite, and the saucy, luscious texture of the liquid, which shouldn’t be too sticky. Many mistakes, outside of fatal overcooking, can be quickly remedied with either a quicker boil at the end to get the rice over the finish line, or a huge knob of butter and cheese melted in to bind everything together.

If you don’t want to cook the add-ins, fresh garnishes like herbs can elevate the dish with little added effort, as can the odd piece of crumbled bacon, which you can add right at the end. Get weird by frying up last night’s broccoli minced up with breadcrumbs as a green and crunchy topping, or give salted egg yolk (a must-try) a sprinkle.

How to handle leftovers

Let’s be real, reheated and cold risotto are both pretty mid: the rice gets too mushy, and all of your hard work just doesn’t hold up. What can make it worth it is creating a second labor of love with the leftovers, like arancini, also known as fried rice balls. These, like any breaded and fried treat, take time and energy, but are extremely satisfying.

For the delicious crunch of arancini without the breading-coated fingers, pan fry a single layer of leftover risotto into a pancake, which is a traditional Italian snack called risotto al salto. Patiently frying in a nonstick pan or a well-seasoned cast iron and flipping lends a crunchy bite that’s like tahdig, socarrat, and risotto all in one delicious bite. If you must go minimal, add a small amount of broth and gently heat in a saucepan, or bake until warmed through; a microwave could easily overcook the already perilous rice.

In my home, so far, a combination of bacon fat, yellow onion, leftover rosé, chicken broth, frozen peas, with pecorino and butter to finish is my family favorite. Provenance is important if you’re trying to make a treasured recipe for one reason or another—in that case, sure, follow the exact instructions with regional Italian rice. Follow a recipe closely to build familiarity with making risotto, but once you are confident in your skills, do whatever you want.

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