This October, WikiLeaks released a controversial batch of emails from John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair. One revelation is causing a stir in the food world: Podesta’s risotto recipe.
In the hacked exchange, financial advisor Peter Huffman asked Podesta why he needs to add stock to risotto a half cup at a time. Because, replied Podesta, “the slower add process and stirring causes the rice to give up it’s [sic] starch which gives the risotto it’s [sic] creamy consistency.”
“Myth myth myth!” tweeted J. Kenji López-Alt, author of The Food Lab. “You CAN add all the liquid at once . . . ”
So began a simmering online debate, with cooks advocating baking, pressure cooking, or simply not stirring risotto at all. But can one achieve a creamy risotto using these alternative methods? Or is there a reason for the traditional technique? Only science can adjudicate the case.
THE SCIENCE OF STARCH
Rice stores energy in the form of two starches: amylose and amylopectin. “Amylose is a single long chain [of glucose], like a bunch of train cars lined up; amylopectin is branched like a tree,” says Dr. Matthew Hartings, assistant professor of chemistry at American University and author of the forthcoming book Chemistry in Your Kitchen.
Risotto rice varieties like Arborio, carnaroli, and Vialone Nano are veritable forests of amylopectin. When you cook them, liquid sneaks into the spaces between branches, softens the grains, and dislodges the starches like fluffy white dandelion seeds that float into the broth, forming a “creamy” sauce. Meanwhile, liquid can’t easily penetrate tightly packed amylose, so the grains remain al dente.
Traditionalists say the movement of water, the friction of stirring, and the jostling of grains against each other are all necessary to slough off the starch during the risotto process. Therefore, cooks must gradually add liquid and stir constantly. “There are no shortcuts or alternative procedures that achieve this result,” writes Marcella Hazan in Marcella’s Italian Kitchen. “Rice cooked by any other method, however good it may be, is not risotto nor should it be so described.”
Dr. Lesa Tran Lu, who teaches the Chemistry of Cooking at (appropriately) Rice University, respectfully disagrees. “It does make sense that adding the mechanical energy of stirring would give you a higher probability of allowing more starch granules to interact with the water. The question is, how much more starch can that really give you? It’s not much at all.”
But that may all depend on your technique—and your rice.
GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN
Risotto rices differ slightly in size and amylose and amylopectin content, which somewhat dictates cooking style. Small, soft Vialone Nano is popular in the Veneto, where cooks make risotto all’onda, or “wavy,” like the Adriatic Sea. Chef Gabriele Ferron, from the Veneto’s Verona province, says a no-stir method works well for starchy Vialone Nano and even medium-starchy carnaroli. But large-grain Arborio requires more coaxing. Still, numerous cooks have developed low-stir methods for Arborio.
To find out more, we started by asking our America’s Test Kitchen colleague, senior editor Andrea Geary, about her experience with low-stir risottos. Geary and her Cook’s Illustrated colleagues tested approximately 42 techniques while perfecting an almost hands-free risotto in 2010. After toasting the grains, Arborio is simmered, without stirring, in five cups of liquid. To ensure that the rice at the bottom and top cooked evenly, Geary used a Dutch oven. “It has a wider surface area, so you have less temperature variation from top to bottom, because it’s in a thinner layer,” Geary explains. “Also, if you’re not going to stir, it’s imperative that you have a heavy, tight-fitting lid.”
Geary’s next hurdle was Podesta’s point: If rice grains are gently swimming in a broth Jacuzzi rather than being jostled around with a spoon, the starch won’t dislodge from the grains. So, Geary says, “you want to bump up the temperature so the rice is moving around . . . It provides some friction that facilitates the sloughing off of the starch, without stirring.” Still, she admits, “it doesn’t really get creamy until the [end], when you stir it for two to three minutes.”
That’s because “heavier starch molecules tend to fall toward the bottom,” says Michele Redmond, a dietician nutritionist and chef who uses a deluge-then-stir risotto method. “So stirring it very vigorously at the end can not only pull off those starches but bring up what’s at the bottom.”
The process is similar with pressure cooker risotto, says David Joachim, author of The Science of Good Food. “Even though you’re not stirring, the rice is releasing its starch, and you can stir the starch into the liquid at the end pretty vigorously. You sacrifice a little of the al dente texture because it’s a more aggressive cooking method. But I can have pretty good risotto, very creamy, in about 12 minutes.”
But is something lost with the quicker methods? If not texture or flavor, then perhaps the meditative stirring, the sensuous slowness? “Absolutely,” Joachim says, which is why the traditional method remains his favorite.
It all boils down to this: “It’s not like one [method] is more correct. It depends on the one you like better,” says Cristina Cantu, manager of New York City’s Risotteria Melotti, where they make Mama Rosetta Melotti’s “traditional” Veronese recipe: They add the rice to the stock. (What?!)
In conclusion? Podesta may be wrong, as risotto isn’t quite as persnickety as legend has it. But we can all differ peacefully in our approaches. Which is good news this election season. In these days of polarizing politics, look to the risotto.
Want to make your own? Check out Andrea Geary’s Almost Hands-Free Risotto with Parmesan and Herbs over on Cook’s Illustrated.
Photo by Carl Tremblay.