- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Is there a quick way to make a great risotto, one that is wonderfully creamy yet with a slight firmness at the center of each grain of rice? As a food scientist and risotto lover, I decided it was time to experiment.

Like most home cooks, I learned to make risotto in the classic manner: Saute onions in oil over medium-low heat until soft, add Arborio rice and cook a few minutes. Then add 1/2 to 1 cup boiling stock, cook with constant stirring until the stock is absorbed, add more stock, cook until it is absorbed, and then add more stock, etc. You get the idea.

This delicious dish is not quick or easy. In a large saucepan, it requires 20 to 25 minutes of constant attention.

The scientific reason for this is that starch granules in Arborio rice absorb liquid and swell when they are heated. When the granule soaks in liquid and swells, it is easier for the liquid to get in, so it soaks in more and more and swells more and more until the granule can swell no larger and pops.

That is when the starch rushes out and thickens the sauce. With grain starches such as corn, rice or wheat, the granules pop at a temperature slightly below water boiling point.

For risotto, when you add the first limited amount of boiling stock, the starch in the outer layers of the rice grains soak in liquid and swell, but there is not enough liquid to get to the deeper layers. When you add more stock, the outer layers again take in liquid and swell, but the inner layers get hardly any.

Cooking in limited amounts of liquid swells and pops the granules on the outside of the grains. They get all the liquid they need so that they release the starch that produces the creaminess. The center of the grain, however, never gets enough liquid to do more than just swell.

Rice varieties used for risotto characteristically have a small area of less developed starch in the center.

This helps keep just the center firm while the rest of the grain becomes soft and creamy.

For risottos, big, round, fat varieties of medium-grain rice known in Italy as superfini (Arborio, Carnaroli) or semifini (Maratelli) are the best. It is this combination of rice variety and cooking method that gives risotto its luscious creaminess with firmness in the center.

In my effort to find a faster risotto, I pulled together all I knew. Restaurant chefs use a 10-inch straight-sided saute pan. This provides a large heated area to both cook and evaporate moisture faster, which speeds up the process from 25 minutes to about 12.

Cookbook author Lorenza de’Medici teaches a recipe that recommends adding 1/4 cup dry white wine right after you saute the Arborio. You cook until the rice is dry, then add all of the stock at once, along with another 1/4 cup of wine, and cook for 14 minutes more.

I knew a large straight-sided saute pan would speed things up, but what impact would the wine have? Would wine make it possible to add all the liquid at once and end up with a creamy risotto? Or would it still come out creamy if the liquid was added all at once without the wine?

I consulted Harold McGee, author of “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” (Scribner) about the wine issue. We both agreed it would add flavor and acidity, but we did not know whether it would affect the outer starch to make the sauce creamier.

Too much acidity will prevent starch from swelling, but wine is not that acidic. And this was just a small amount of wine. Our guess was that it was added primarily for flavor.

To find out if wine made any difference technically and also to see how creamy the risotto would be if the stock were added all at once, I made two risottos, one with wine and the other without. In both cases, I added 3 cups of stock all at once and stirred steadily. Both batches cooked in about the same amount of time (about 12 minutes), and both were creamy.

I was surprised at how creamy they both were. I saw this as an indication that with the right rice variety you will get a certain amount of creaminess, even if you mess up the technique. I was using an Italian Arborio, which friends say is preferred by home cooks because it cooks a little faster. (Some restaurants prefer Carnaroli, though, because it holds better after cooking is completed.)

As a result of my experiment, I now admit that you can get a creamy risotto when all of the liquid is added at once, but I do not think it is as creamy as when you add the liquid in separate portions.

In terms of technique, one thing is absolutely vital: The liquid you add, whether in portions or all at once, must be boiling or, at a minimum, at a good simmer. Cold liquid can cause the starch to set, and the rice will cease to exude that starch.

One last risotto tip. I always think of a story told by Vincent Schiavelli, the character actor who played one of the attendants in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” His grandfather was one of the great Sicilian chefs.

Mr. Schiavelli told the story of how his aunt would beg his grandfather to let her watch him make the risotto. With great fanfare the chef would go over every step, adding and stirring. Finally he would fold his arms across his chest and say, “It is done.”

The aunt would shake her head and turn away, muttering, “I do it exactly the same way, exactly the same, but mine is never as creamy as yours.” The second she looked away, his grandfather would stir an egg yolk into the risotto. That egg yolk, with all of its emulsifiers, made the risotto sensationally creamy. Now I, too, sneak an egg yolk into my risotto. I know that with all the starch in the mixture, I don’t have to worry about the egg curdling.

Putting all of these things together, I have come up with a slightly faster (due to the pan size) risotto. However, I still cling to the tradition of adding the liquid in portions.

Lemon risotto with mozzarella and tomatoes

This is a delicate, creamy risotto made in the traditional way, but if you want to settle for a slightly less creamy risotto, you can add all the stock at once. I don’t like canned broth because when it sits at a simmer, it reduces and can become too strong.

I prefer homemade or a mild mixture of concentrate. Most Italian recipes recommend adding butter and Parmesan cheese at the end of the cooking, but I love the delicate taste of fresh mozzarella. One final tip: If you toss the grated mozzarella with lemon juice, it will not get stringy.

1 cup fresh mozzarella, grated

3 tablespoons lemon juice

Zest of 1½ lemons, divided

2 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped in ½-inch dice

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

6½ cups homemade chicken stock or water with 3 teaspoons chicken stock concentrate

1 cup chopped onion

4 tablespoons butter, divided

2 cups Arborio rice

1/4 cup heavy whipping cream, hot

1 large egg yolk

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

Salt

Basil leaves, optional

3 scallions, green included, thinly sliced, optional

In a medium mixing bowl, toss together mozzarella and lemon juice and set aside. In another bowl, sprinkle zest of 1 lemon over tomatoes. Toss tomatoes with 2 tablespoons olive oil and set aside.

In a large saucepan, bring chicken stock or water-stock concentrate mixture to a simmer. Cover but keep warm over low heat.

In a 10-inch straight-sided saute pan over low heat, saute onion in 2 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons butter until translucent and soft, not browned, about 6 minutes.

Stir in rice and continue to cook for another 4 minutes. Bring stock to a boil and stir 1 cup into rice. I like to stir with a wooden flat-ended spatula, which makes it easy to steadily scrape the bottom of the pan.

When rice has absorbed liquid, add another cup and continue stirring. Again, when liquid has been absorbed, add another cup. Continue in this manner using 5 to 6 cups stock. After adding 5 cups, add remaining zest of ½ lemon.

After 10 minutes, start tasting occasionally. The risotto should be creamy but with a slight firmness at the center of the grains.

When risotto is done to your taste, turn off heat and stir in 2 tablespoons butter and hot cream. Stir in egg yolk and then mozzarella. Add pepper and salt to taste. Spoon into 4 heated bowls.

Salt tomatoes and divide among the servings. Garnish each bowl with basil leaves and/or a sprinkling of scallions, if desired. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

Another option: Salmon risotto is excellent with 1/4 pound salmon fillets, pan sauteed just to cook through, broken into ½-inch pieces and stirred into the risotto just before it is seasoned with pepper and salt. Salmon risotto can be garnished with fresh dill in place of the tomatoes, if desired.

Food scientist Shirley O. Corriher is author of “CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking” (William Morrow).

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