Risotto: Store Bought vs Homemade

One of my biggest guilty pleasures is watching cooking competition shows like Chopped, Beat Bobby Flay, and Top Chef. It fascinates me to see how creative chefs are and learn about new cuisines I have never heard of. Watching these shows inspire me to try new things and be more creative when I cook. Despite my creative desires, one dish I have always been too intimidated to make is risotto. On Top Chef, the judges and contestants regularly refer to risotto as a curse because so many chefs have been eliminated after a failed attempt to execute the dish properly. I have always wondered what it is about risotto that threw off chefs. Isn’t risotto just cooked rice? How can it be so difficult? Well, I finally decided to find out for myself and have my first attempt at making risotto.

Ossobuco with mushroom risotto from Villa Revenna in Tulsa, OK

I happen to love risotto. If I see it on a menu, I am sure to order it. While I cannot remember my first time trying risotto, there is one dish that does stay with me: the squid ink risotto at Waxman’s in San Francisco. If you also watch several cooking shows you may recognize the name Waxman. This restaurant was owned by James Beard award-winning chef Jonathan Waxman but, unfortunately, it has since closed. When I ordered the squid ink risotto I didn’t exactly understand what I was getting. So when the waiter arrived with my meal and I saw that the risotto was completely black, I was afraid that I made a mistake. I usually prefer my meals to be bright and full of color so this was completely outside of my comfort zone. But I will try anything at least once. Although I wasn’t so sure about the dish sitting in front of me I was still going to taste it and, WOW, am I glad I did. The risotto was so savory. I wanted to close my eyes and cherish every bite. It definitely ranks high on my list of best meals I have ever had.

Chicken thighs served with autumn risotto from World Market

Because this would be my first attempt at making risotto I thought it might be best to use a pre-mixed option in hopes that it might be easiest to just add water. I found an autumn risotto mix at World Market that sounded good so I decided to try it first. When I opened the package the seasoning smelled so wonderful. However, I still had to add some of my own seasonings because when I tasted it towards the end of cooking it was a bit bland. Also, the instructions were not as descriptive as they should be. I later learned that I needed to add water in slowly, about 1/2 a cup at a time, instead of all at once. And instead of using water, it would be better to add broth. Knowing what I do now I would like to give this pack another try and make these changes when cooking the risotto to see if I get better results.

Since the pre-mixed risotto didn’t work out as I had hoped I turned to the Internet to find a recipe to try. I came across this recipe for mushroom parmesan risotto that sounded delicious and had more descriptive instructions. Other than cutting the recipe in half (the original recipe would have made 8 servings and it was only my husband and me) I followed the recipe closely. One tip I got from this recipe was to make sure and use the correct rice, arborio rice. I easily found Vigo arborio rice at my local grocery store in the same aisle as all of the other rice. The second tip is to use a large pot, like a dutch oven, especially if you plan to make the full recipe. The third, and most important, tip is to stir regularly. Making risotto will require your full attention so it would probably be best to have your partner or friend helping if you have other stuff cooking at the same time.

The ingredients you will need and recipe are as follows:

  • 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 lb mushrooms, sliced (button, wild, and cremini are all good)
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine. I used a Chardonnay and drank it with dinner.
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper
  • 3/4 cup finely grated parmesan
  • 1 1/2 tbsp butter, to be used throughout cooking
  • Garnish: fresh parsley, chives, or other herbs, parmesan cheese
  1. In a small pot, bring the broth to a simmer then reduce heat to low to keep warm. You’ll use this to add to the rice later.
  2. In a dutch oven or something similar, heat the oil over medium, then add your onions and cook for about 5 minutes. You want them soft, but not browned. Add garlic and mushrooms, and cook until mushrooms have slightly darkened in color. Pour the mixture into a bowl and set aside.
  3. Over medium heat, add one teaspoon butter to your pot. Stir in rice, salt, and pepper. Cook for about two minutes, until the rice is well-coated with butter. Add your white wine and cook until the strong smell of wine dies down and the wine is mostly adsorbed into the rice.
  4. Begin to add ½ cup stock at a time to the rice, stirring constantly. Wait until the liquid is absorbed before adding more. This tip is what gives the risotto that creamy texture. Continue cooking and stirring the rice. Depending on the rice, it should take between 20 and 30 minutes. Start tasting at about 20 minutes until you get the texture you want. It should be al dente but creamy. You may have leftover broth or you may heat up a little more.
  5. Add the mushroom mixture to the rice and stir. Then mix in cheese and the remaining butter. You can garnish with more parmesan, freshly cracked black pepper, parsley, chives, or other herbs you like.

I chose to have this risotto with lamb ribs but it would also pair well with steak or chicken thighs. It’s nice to pair it with something a little fatty. A few nights ago we went out to eat and my husband ordered Ossobuco with mushroom risotto, and I must say, the mushroom risotto I made was just as good. Since most risotto recipes do not include meat it would also be a great option if you are a vegetarian or you are trying to cut out meat from some meals. Other risotto recipes I would like to try in the future include: shrimp risotto, vegetable risotto, and tomato basil and spinach risotto.

I was very impressed by how well the mushroom parmesan risotto turned out. Truth be told, it wasn’t that difficult to make but it does require your full attention since you only add broth little by little and you need to stir it regularly. It was a bit tricky getting the rice al dente. I cooked the rice for about 25 minutes and I used almost all of the broth. I assume the reason chefs on cooking competitions have such a difficult time executing risotto properly is that they are usually making other dishes at the same time and don’t allow themselves the time they need to give the rice their full attention.

If you have also been too intimidated to make risotto, don’t be! If you follow this recipe you will see that it is actually easier than you thought and it tastes so good. I will definitely be making this again very soon.

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