There’s rice, and, then, there’s risotto. Or, wait. Isn’t risotto more of a method than an actual thing? The addition of small amounts of moisture periodically is antithetical to most methods for cooking “regular” rice. Even so, risotto is closely related to all of the other types of rice, which include black and yellow and brown and short and long and squat and oval, and big and small and so on. There’s more than one kind of risotto, notably distinguished from other types of rice by its price. Whereas most common forms are available @.80/lb or less, Arborio and Carnaroli are frequently $3/lb or even more. Italian varieties are lower yield than Asian, but the high cost of risotto is more closely related to snob factor than anything else.
Risotto has more of one starch than other types of rice, and less of another starch than others. The pearly shape of risotto helps prevent it from breaking apart as a result of all that stirring and tossing. Just the shape of medium or long grain rice makes it vulnerable to friction. It’s difficult to get just any rice to survive the risotto method. You can, however, get risotto to come out like other forms of rice.
Is it Risotto, or is it Fugazi?
Risotto is ANOTHER one of those Italian things, like polenta and gnocchi and tortellini and ravioli. For every method used to make it, there are a thousand people to tell you that’s not the way to make it. Once that happens, you usually get to hear a wistful story about somebody’s grandmother back in the old country. Italians disagree about how risotto is supposed to be as much as Americans do. Many chefs shake their heads in denial of this, but it’s true. Some would have us believe that everybody in Italy knows but one way to make it, and God help the cook that deviates from the ancient model. Italians have always taken great pleasure in disagreeing about almost anything. Why should risotto be any different?
Many purists are still fond of saying “that would never fly in Italy,” or “*sigh,* you Americans will never learn how to make risotto properly.” We’re not going to worry about authenticism or purism here. Those debates go on forever and never achieve any form of consensus. I’ve had hotel executives throw my risotto right back at me (figuratively, so far), only to have nearby Italians whisper “just so you know–you got it right. By the way, this conversation never happened.” Let’s talk about what makes risotto difficult.
“Stay out of the kitchen. Mom’s making risotto”
Making risotto at home is a lot more labor intensive than making the other forms of rice. Most of them are “set it and forget it” items. Measure the rice, measure the water, come back in half an hour. Risotto needs love. It must be attended to, nursed, stirred, swirled, observed, tossed and coddled. By the way, don’t measure the water. The risotto will tell you how much moisture it needs.
Restaurants have a lot of difficulty preparing risotto, too. Since the traditional model calls for risotto to be made to order, that creates a long interval between the moment the guest orders it and the moment the risotto arrives.
From Hare to Eternity
Including travel time from guest to server , and server to kitchen, and then back again, risotto can take half an hour, maybe longer. Most items from the saute station can be knocked out in five minutes or less. Saute cooks dread orders for risotto.
Devoting an entire station to risotto orders only will assure that you have a well paid cook standing there dozing for most of the shift. You’re unlikely to put your best cook on the risotto station–besides, he/she doesn’t want to do it. When the orders do come in, the risotto cook will immediately freeze in the headlights. Then, the saute cook will get to bail that person out on top of everything else. People might wait half an hour for risotto, but the chance of them being satisfied with their dish becomes eroded after 12-15 minutes. I hear things are different in Europe, slower, more relaxed, and maybe diners are more refined and patient there, but, that doesn’t matter. We’re here.
What? MORE Changes?
Chefs in the States, even Italian chefs, have been attempting to re-engineer the risotto paradigm for a long time. There has to be a way to speed things up. This means precooking by one hopeful method or another. I’ve done it myself, cooking the risotto to a certain point, and then spreading it out on sheet pans to cool it off as quickly as possible. Or, you can pre-boil it like pasta, and hope for the best when you heat it up. You want to force the release of starch, without degrading the kernels. That process is not easy to start, and it’s even harder to stop once it DOES get started.
If your streamlined method appears successful, how the risotto is handled AFTER you strategize still affects the end result. You have a good chance of getting runny gruel on one day, and wallpaper paste the next. I actually had one cook who insisted on making a big pan when we opened. He would then just scoop out of the pan on to the plate, heating it up periodically as the night wore on. It wasn’t bad right at 5 o’clock, but by 8:30, it bore little resemblance to the original incarnation. It was more like Congee, that cooked out rice porridge that they serve in Chinese Tea Houses. He reasoned, “Ah, they’re probably drunk by now anyway, they won’t notice.” I got fired, eventually, and he is still there. Maybe he was right!
Can Sous Vide make a difference with risotto? I was doubtful, so doubtful, that I didn’t even bother to try for a long time. There really isn’t that huge of a demand. It’s cool to say you love it, but people don’t actually order it that often. People WILL, however, discuss it at great length table side. This aggravates servers, who are usually thinking “Please, please, PLEASE, order the Piccata.”
That might be good. Does it sound good to you? Ask the waiter if it’s good…
Paying $22 for a bowl of rice with a couple of prawns and a scallop adorning it doesn’t sound that satisfying. The more stuff you put in risotto, the farther you get away from the characteristics that make it enjoyable. Chefs will actually say “If I make it right, they will hate it. If I make it the way they want it, it will be ME who hates it!” Many Italian chefs will flavor the risotto with shellfish while they’re making it, and then remove the shellfish itself and discard it before service. There’s a terrific scene in the movie “The Big Night” that illustrates this in a very tragicomic way.
There may be numerous chefs who have successfully (and secretly) solved this problem. It could be common knowledge by now. I will confess, I don’t surf the web looking for alternative methods to make risotto. I used to tell cooks “don’t think about what anybody else is doing–just think about what YOU are doing.” I want to explore as many potential SV candidates as possible.
If you have experience making risotto, you might want to temporarily forget everything you knew, or think you knew about it We will just start over.
And, if you are totally satisfied with the way you make it, you may want to stop reading now. Your Zen could be contaminated by the whole idea being turned upside down. Remember, I warned you. Buddy Rich, the famous drummer, used to say something to the effect of “I never took lessons or learned to read music. I felt it would only hold me back.”
Ingredients for the Sous Vide Step:
- 1 cup Arborio or Carnaroli Risotto
- 1 cup COLD (40F-70F) water, or neutral stock–if you use stock, make sure it is NOT salted.
- 2 oz unsalted butter
- S+P as needed at the end…
- There is a reason for using cold water or stock, For most people, cold means out of the tap, which is almost always going to be about 70F. Once you say “HOT’ water, people may interpret that to mean anything between 130F and 212F. We want consistency, and we want facility–simplicity. If you have to heat the ingredients of your package before you drop it in the bath, well, just how much more complicated does it have to get before Sous Vide makes my life easier?? LET’S JUST GO OUT.
- Combine all the ingredients in a quart bag. I use a 16 oz glass, it’s just about perfect for the task.
- Remove all the air. Since there’s liquid in the bag, that’s pretty easy. Just squeeze the bag until the water gets close to the opening, and seal it.
- Honestly, I thought this step would take longer. I had nothing to go by, but my observation. After 15 minutes, the risotto had visibly released some starch, and absorbed the liquid. so I pulled it.
- It settles in one end of the bag, so I laid it flat on the counter and gently flattened it.
- Let it rest on the counter for 10 minutes, until it gets to approx. 110F, Shock in cold water until it gets to 70F For what it’s worth, doing this makes it legal for service. If you’re making more than one bag, make sure you don’t stack them on top of each other. I do not recommend making batches larger than this in one bag. Doing so will change processing times. It’s really better to make multiple bags, which, will then keep almost indefinitely in the fridge. DO NOT FREEZE.
- At this point, choices can be made. Once refrigerated, the risotto is ready to be finished in one of many fashions.
And, now, for the rest of the story…
This risotto will be applied in upcoming recipes posted on the site, which will explain the finishing model. Simply put, more moisture will be added to complete the cooking process, and then, whatever garnishes and other ingredients are desired. Here’s the first one!
And what shall we call it? I refuse to use the word “instant” or even “quick.” How about “Proto-Zoto”? Thanks, Rick!