onion + rice + hot stock + stirring + butter = risotto

Risotto is one of those recipes that people think is hard. It’s one of those dishes that has to be perfect. This can inspire feelings of fear and inadequacy. Which is silly really, since all risotto is, is rice. Instead of pouring in all the liquid at once and being done with it, you’re How to cook risotto illustrationadding the liquid a bit at a time, while stirring so the grains don’t stick to the pan, and so that they release their starches to make the liquid creamy. It takes about 20 mins. That’s basically it.

There are four steps to making a risotto:

1 – the soffritto – that’s Italian for flavor base. Essentially, fry a diced onion in butter (for flavor) and oil (so the butter doesn’t burn) gently until it’s soft and fragrant.

2 – add the rice. Turn it in the oil to get coated and every so slightly toasted.

3 -  add the liquid – wine first, boil away the alcohol leaving the flavor to go straight to the heart of the grains. Then stock, hot stock, a ladleful at a time, while stirring.

4 – Resting. Once the rice is cooked through but not porridge – you want a little bite – add a good dollop of butter and parmesan cheese, stir through then put the lid on and let the rice rest off the heat for 2 minutes.

Really, that’s all there is to it.


1 – The soffritto

  • You can fancy up the soffritto by adding celery and garlic. Dice the celery finely and add with the onion to fry and soften, then add the chopped garlic just before adding the rice so it doesn’t have a chance to burn.
  • Or use garlic oil to fry the onion in
  • Or make a lot of soffritto at once bag it up and keep it in the freezer (use it in stews or as a base for pasta sauces). Use one onion to one celery to one garlic clove proportions and blitz the whole lot in a processor. The extra liquid that this releases from the celery and onion stops the garlic burning in the pan. About 1 tbsp can be substituted (cook from frozen if you like) for 1 onion.

2 – The rice

  • Arborio or Carnaroli – you’re looking for a short fat grained rice.  Nothing else is going to work. Honestly. I had high hopes for a bag of sushi rice. It was good, but it wasn’t risotto. For risotto you need risotto rice.

3 – The liquid

  • Add wine that you would drink. It’s such a shame to spend 20 mins cooking and find that you added a cup of something like vinegar.
  • Or if you don’t want to open wine, Pernod with its fresh anise flavor is good. Or lemon juice. Or simply don’t bother and move straight onto the stock
  • Stock – homemade is best, from a box is good, bullion powder is ok, and a cube is fine, but don’t add too much extra salt. You’re going to have the stock in a pan next to you on the stove anyway to keep it hot, so it’s easy to cheer up a stock cube by adding in a carrot broken in half, or an onion chopped in half, and a bay leaf. Goes a long way.

4 – Resting

  • You need to add the butter. Don’t even think of using spread. If you’ve run out of butter, use olive oil and a bit more cheese. In a pinch, consider mascarpone (though if you’ve got that, why don’t you have butter?) or cream cheese (don’t tell any Italians I suggested that) and a pinch of salt.
  • The kind of parmesan that comes grated in tubs can taste like salty sawdust. I used to buy large chunks and grate them in a processor (just throw them in and let the blades turn them into rubble – no need to find the grater attachment that’s in the back of a drawer somewhere) then freeze them in bags. Since I moved to New York and have no counter space whatsoever I buy smaller lumps and grate as needed. Domestic Parmesan (it’s great value in Fairway) is good stuff – perfect if you’re watching the budget.
  • How to cook risotto recipe illustrationAlong with the butter and parmesan you could add marscapone or a splash of cream – again, not authentic, but good.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of resting for 2 mins. It really makes a big difference.


  • Cook the topping before it goes anywhere near the risotto. Cook the chicken first. Roast the squash. Blanch the asparagus.
  • Frozen peas are the great exception – you can cook them in the heat of the rice.
  • It’s often a good idea to puree some of the topping and mix it in to flavor the whole risotto, rather than just dumping it on top. So roasted butternut squash, peas, tomatoes possibly … a bit of puree is a good plan.

The Delia question.

Delia Smith, doyenne of British cookery, has created an oven bake risotto. You make it up to the stock stage, then pour in the whole lot and stick it in an oven at 300 for 20 mins, take it out, stir in the butter and cheese, then put it back in for 15 mins precisely. I have a friend who swears that 325 for 25 total, then add the cheese and butter works well too. Google it by all means and experiment.

I appreciate the spirit – there are days when I want to throw things into a pot and open the oven later to a meal, but those days are not days when I’m in a risotto mood. When I want to eat and share risotto, I want to stand by the stove glass of wine in hand, stirring hypnotically and mulling over whatever needs mulling over that day. Or I want to listen to the radio and forget the world, or I want to chat to friends, perched on the kitchen table. I want to put love into a dish, either for my guests or for myself. And 20 minutes of stirring, to my mind, definitely equals something like love.

If you can make that, you can make this:

What would you like to make?