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How to Make Risotto Like an Italian (and Keep it Dairy Free)

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How to Make Risotto Like an Italian (and Keep it Dairy Free)

How do you make risotto like an Italian? Well, the first answer that comes to my mind is: by watching. I grew up here in the North of Italy (where Risotto is one of the most popular dishes), watching my dad – a true risotto master – make risotto every other night.

Yes, we are a little obsessed with this dish in my family 😉 And that’s why I dedicate one of my LIVE Virtual Cooking Classes to this fantastic “primo”.

Risotto is one of those dishes of the Italian culinary tradition that sounds very intimidating at first, but that once you know a few tricks to cook it, soon becomes one of the dinners you cook most often!

And while we all know that Risotto is a naturally gluten free dish (thank God for that), you might not know that this dish can be made dairy free as well and it comes out just as good (and a lot lighter to digest as well!).

Now, let’s dive right into some of the most frequently asked questions about Risotto. If you don’t find the answers you were looking for below, leave a comment at the end of this post and I’ll get back to you there!

How to Make Risotto Like an Italian

How to Make Risotto Like an Italian (and Keep it Dairy Free)

1. What kind of rice is best for risotto?

The creaminess of Risotto is determined, amongst other factors, from the starch that is released by the grains. For this reason, you need a type of rice that contains the right amount of starch (usually a varietal with short, fat grains that tend to get sticky when cooked).

The most suitable varieties of rice to make a good risotto are:

  1. Arborio My personal favorite and what I use all the time. In my opinion, nothing compares to it in terms of creaminess and overall results. This rice is originally from the Po Valley, in the region of Piedmont, Italy.
  2. Carnaroli This rice is my second favorite. Also known as the “king” of risotto rice, Carnaroli is one of the most widely used variety of rice to make risotto because each grain maintains its shape. This variety is also grown in Piedmont, Italy, and it has a longer grain and firmer texture than Arborio.
  3. Vialone Nano This is another type of rice rich in starch that maintains its shape even after cooking and absorbing a lot of liquid. It is typical of the flat, rice-growing areas of the southern province di Verona.

Never attempt to make risotto with long grain types of rice such as Jasmine, Basmati, or Wild, Red or Sticky rice.

2. Do you need to wash risotto rice?

Never wash or soak your rice beforehand. This process would remove the starch, which is what gives risotto its smooth and creamy texture.

3. What is the best pot to cook risotto?

THE MATERIAL: The tradition says that the best pot to make a good risotto should be made of copper. Steel or aluminum are also good materials, as they allow the heat to spread evenly. Personally, I use a non-stick pot and my risotto comes out perfect every time.

THE SHAPE: Do not use a narrow, high-sided pan, such as those used for boiling pasta. By using that type of pot, you risk cooking rice irregularly. The grains on the bottom would stick together, while those on the surface would remain undercooked.

THE SIZE: You can either use a pot with two handles or a large pan (preferably with a single handle) with medium-high walls (about 6 to 8 cm or 2.3 to 3.1”). This will allow the rice to cook evenly and it will facilitate the creaming process at the end.

If you want to cook risotto for 2 to 4 people, I recommend using a pan with a diameter of 20 to 25 cm (7.8” to 9.8”) and for 6 people one with a diameter of 30 cm (11.8”).

4. How do you toast the rice to make Risotto?

Toasting the rice before cooking it is one of the steps to make risotto that marks the difference between a real risotto and boiled rice. Toasting allows you to “seal” the grains which allows them to release the right amount of starch.

But as it happens often when it comes to food matters, Italians take toasting the rice very seriously and they divide in two opposed factions.

Some people swear that it’s better to toast dry rice. Others prefer to toast the rice in the “soffritto”, a sautée of finely diced onion, shallot or leek and herbs in extra virgin olive oil or butter.

I stand with “team soffritto” 😉 But whether you decide to toast your rice with or without fat, remember that the most important thing is that you carefully heat the grains before you start cooking them.

How to Make Risotto Like an Italian

5. Can you make Risotto without broth?

If you ask this question to a traditionalist Italian cook they’ll say: “Absolutely not!”. But because I am a bit of an atypical Italian (and a very practical one too), I guarantee you that you can make an excellent risotto even by simply using water.

Yes, you heard that well. If you season your risotto properly and with high quality ingredients, the final product will be just as flavorful!

In my opinion, what’s more important than using water or broth is that you allow your risotto to cook gradually, adding hot liquid as it evaporates or is absorbed.

And the reason why it’s particularly important that your broth or water is hot is that adding cold liquid to your risotto would continuously block the cooking.

Lastly, make sure that the grains are always covered with liquid while cooking so that they can release the starch without breaking.

Dairy Free Risotto at Intercontinental Bangkok

6. Is risotto hard to make?

Nope. Contrary to popular belief, risotto is a really easy dish to prepare once you know a couple of tricks to cook it perfectly. In the LIVE Virtual Cooking Classes that I host on Zoom,

I walk you through how to make risotto like an Italian. And once you know the basics with me, you’ll have the confidence to make it on your own and make it come out great every time!

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7. Is risotto cooked over low heat?

It’s best to cook your risotto on low, simmering heat and add the liquid gradually, one ladle at a time. This gives the rice time to fully absorb the liquid and flavors.

Make sure to keep an eye on the flame: the risotto has to boil briskly, but not burn.

8. Do you cook risotto covered or uncovered?

A combination of both. You keep it covered in between each increment of liquid, and uncovered when you need to add in liquid little and stir. This last step is important as it allows you to mix back in the grains that happen to stick to the sides of the pot, so that all the rice cooks evenly.

You will definitely need to keep the lid on at the end, during the creaming process.

9. Why is my risotto not creamy?

The creaming process at the end is what gives risotto its delicious, creamy texture.

Creaming traditionally involves butter and Parmesan cheese or Gorgonzola. But in my LIVE Virtual Cooking Class, I show how to make risotto without any dairy.

What I Eat in a Day in Italy - Healthy Dinner Risotto

10. How do you cream Risotto?

Creaming risotto is the final step of this preparation and a very important one. The stove should be turned off a couple of minutes before cooking is complete. Check the cooking of the rice and, if it is “al dente”, turn off the heat.

At this point, you add in your cheese and butter replacements, mix gently, cover with a lid and wait patiently for the magic to happen. This is when the typical creaminess of risotto is released, and it becomes outrageously luscious and oozy like it should be.

11. When is it best to eat Risotto?

Risotto is one of those dishes that needs to be eaten as soon as it’s done, as that is when it retains its beautiful texture. If you let it sit in the pot for too long, your risotto will soon become overcooked and dry, which would be a real shame after all the effort you made to prepare it 😉

For this reason, you need to time your dinners correctly and make sure you start cooking risotto when you are sure that in half an hour everyone will be sitting at the table and ready to eat a nice place of hot, freshly made risotto.

12. What can I do with leftover Risotto?

One of the questions I hear most often is: can Risotto be made ahead and reheated? The answer is… well, it depends.

No, if you want to eat an actual risotto.

Yes, you are willing to use your leftover risotto and turn it into another classic North Italian dish: “Riso al Salto”, which literally translate as “Rice to the Jump” (I know, it doesn’t make much sense in English).

The verb “saltare” in Italian means “to jump” or “to stir fry”. But don’t think for a minute that “Riso al Salto” is a simple stir-fried rice.

This dish, invented as a way to reuse leftover risotto from the day before, is a real delicacy and you’ll find it on the menu of many restaurants in Lombardy and Piedmont.

If I had to describe it, I would say “Riso al Salto” is like a delicious risotto pancake with a golden, crunchy crust.

How to Make Risotto Like an Italian

13. How do you make “Riso al Salto”?

Take a pan, grease it with extra virgin olive oil (the traditional recipe calls for butter), add in the leftover risotto and pat it down with the back of a spoon or a spatula to form a compact and round pancake shape.

Cook over high heat until a golden crust forms on the bottom (you’ll see that it starts browning around the edges as well) and swirl your risotto pancake around to prevent it from sticking to the pan. This process should take about 10 to 12 minutes.

When the first side has browned, remove the pan from the heat, carefully slide your “Riso al Salto” on a plate, being careful not to break it. Put some more olive oil in the pan and slide your risotto pancake back into it to brown the other side.

An easy way to do this without breaking the pancake is to place a second plate (faced down) on top of it. With a quick motion, flip the plates, lift off the top plate and let the pancake slide into the pan. Use the spatula to patch up any spots that were damaged during the flip.

Brown for 10 more minutes and your “Riso al Salto” is now ready to eat!

NOTE: If you are using leftover pumpkin risotto, make sure to smash the pieces of pumpkin with a fork before you start sautéing it, so that these chunks won’t interfere with crust formation and make flipping more difficult.

I hope this post about how to make risotto like an Italian was helpful and that you’ll now feel less intimidated to cook an outstanding risotto. Please, share this post with other Italian food lovers on your Facebook and Pinterest!

And if you ever want to make risotto with me (and have some fun), make sure to join the wait list for one of my upcoming LIVE Virtual Cooking Classes, so I can guide you through the entire process!

Lots of love from Italy!

Don’t forget to pin this article on your favorite Pinterest boards and to share it on your Facebook so that other people can benefit from it too!

Lots of love and healing vibes!


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Ambra Torelli
Born and raised in Italy, Ambra visited over 20 countries and now she divides her time in between Italy and the US, where her husband is from and where she moved in 2011 work as university professor of Italian Literature. She writes about food, travel and things that inspire her! more about ambra

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