Rice is the key ingredient in any Italian Risotto.
Depending on the rice type, it can make or break your risotto, no matter how carefully you have chosen the rest of the ingredients.
That’s why knowing and choosing the best type of rice for your next risotto can be a gamechanger. If you also know and follow Italian technique for cooking risotto - the most creamy, mouth-watering result is guaranteed.
Risotto acquires its unique consistency and creaminess thanks to the cooking process it undergoes and, above all, the kind of rice chosen.
Contrary to popular belief, risotto is also super easy and rather quick to make!
But before we discover the best risotto rice, let’s take a step back and let’s see what actually risotto is, how it’s made and what makes this Italian dish so special..
Not All Rice Types Can Make Great Risotto
Risotto is a creamy, rice-based first course dish from Northern Italy.
It is made by briefly toasting rice grains in fat (usually with chopped onion), then other ingredients are added (often at different stages) and cooked along in quality broth.
Risotto cooking time is not less than fifteen minutes, typically seventeen, sometimes almost twenty.
This allows the grains to soften and absorb the taste of other ingredients. That’s why a risotto with mushrooms is miles away from a plate of boiled white rice seasoned with even the finest porcini mushrooms.
Once done, even before the final stage of “mantecatura”, consisting in blending in cold butter and Parmesan cheese, risotto is already creamy and velvety, and each grain, although not glued to the others, is wrapped in a smooth silky kind of sauce.
The kind of rice we need for risotto, therefore, not only must be able to produce this sort of sauce, but also must be able to withstand long cooking times without becoming mushy, in order to gain flavors from other ingredients and allow them sufficient time to cook as well.
All this can be accomplished by a key element in rice grain composition: starch.
It Takes Starch To Be Silky & Stiff
The main rice grain component is a carbohydrate called starch, which in its turn is composed of amylose and amylopectin.
Amylose is what allows rice to remain stiff when cooked and provides the “al dente”, gummy mouthfeel. Amylose does not gelatinize during cooking. Rice grains with high amount of amylose will keep their form and will separated once cooked. Typically long grain rice types such as Basmati and Jasmine rice represent this group of rice types with high amount of amylose and low amounts of amylopectin.
Amylopectin, on the contrary, is the form of starch that makes rice gelatinous and helps formation of that beautiful silky risotto cream. Both medium-grain and short-grain rice types are rich in amylopectin and with considerably lower amounts of amylose.
4 Rice Types That Make The Best Risotto
One of the most common and widely available types of rice suitable for making Italian risotto is of course, Arborio Rice.
But this is not the only kind of rice (and not even the best!) that can be used to make the most delicious, creamy and authentic risotto.
So let’s start from the most famous/conventional rice types and then discover other types of rice that work equally well or even better.
Coming from a homonymous city in Piedmont, Arborio is probably the most widely spread and largely available Italian risotto rice.
It’s cheaper and easier to grow than other types of risotto rice.
Arborio has medium-size grains that can absorb water up to five times the equivalent of their weight which results in creamy (excessively creamy) consistency. But, compared to other risotto rice types, they have less starch, which makes it easier to overcook.
These qualities combined together make Arborio unpopular with Italian chefs and is hardly ever a rice of choice to make risotto in a restaurant.
However Arborio is still great risotto rice. It just requires a little more experience to avoid overcooking and its core still remains ‘al dente’.
In Italy, it’s probably mostly associated with Lombardy.
This is because it is particularly suitable to prepare the much-loved Saffron Risotto and its variation with ossobuco called Risotto alla Milanese.
However, it is also the variety of choice to cook a lesser known sort of risotto, namely Paniscia (or Panissa) made with rice, beans and salami sausage, the flagship dish of the other Piedmontese rice-growing province, Novara.
Carnaroli rice is also widely diffused and highly regarded when it comes to making risottos. Compared to Arborio, not only it has a higher amount of starch overall (and indeed, the grain appears to be more homogeneously white), but it is higher in amylose. These two factors - its starch’s composition and grain dimension - make it capable to withstand prolonged cooking, thus absorbing flavors but keeping its shape.
Created in the Forties, in all likelihood, it owes its name to the then president of the Italian authority for rice varieties (“Ente Nazionale Risi”, an institution born in the Thirties to face the crisis of rice growing), professor Emiliano Carnaroli. Other sources report that it was named after a farmer that helped agronomist Ettore de Vecchi at the time he created the variety.
Italians refer to Carnaroli as the king of rices and consider it the best rice for less experienced cooks as the grains remain very compact and risotto doesn’t become grainy.
A few know that both Arborio and Carnaroli varieties are, from the genetic point of view, half-brothers. They were, indeed, both created by crossing two other varieties, one of which is the same. While Arborio is born from the Lady Wright variety, the latter parent of Carnaroli is Lencino, but the former parent is, for them both, Vialone.
This leads us straight to the third best variety for Risotto.
Vialone Nano is a semi-fine rice with roundish grains of medium size.
As its name suggests, Vialone Nano is a cross between the nano and vialone rice varieties.
Like Arborio, it was selected for the first time in the province of Vercelli during the first half of the 20th century.
Today it is mainly produced in the provinces of Verona and Mantua (south-western Lombardy).
Vialone Nano is rich in starch, difficult to overcook, and can absorb sauces very well. This makes it perfect for risottos with meat, vegetables or seafood.
Risotto made with Vialone Nano rice will turn very silky and creamy with rice grain that are not too soft, with still a slight bite.
The only downside of Vialone Nano is that it can be difficult to find it in common stores and supermarkets outside of Italy. Good news is that you can easily order it online.
Like the previous three, Baldo is a superfine japonica rice. It is actually a cross between Arborio and another rice variety called Stirpe 136. It has a crystalline structure and is usually used for risotto. It is more resistant than Arborio, so it is also ideal for rice salads or even arancine. It is also rich in starch and absorbs well liquids and flavors.
It’s appreciated not only for its culinary proprieties but also for its nutritional value as its most rich in minerals.
Another risotto rice with similar qualities to Baldo is Roma. It has pearly, full-bodied grains that can be cooked in a short time and absorb excellently all the flavors.
This specialty rice is even harder to find than Vialone Nano for this reason it's not so popular outside of Italy.
Now that we've covered everything you need to know about risotto rice, its types and qualities let's just sum up quickly which type of risotto rice works best for which type of risotto.
Best Rice Pairings For Risottos
- Arborio - works best for extra creamy risottos like Saffron Risotto, Risotto Alla Milanese, Paniscia, risi e bisi.
- Carnaroli - it is known as the king of risotto rices for a reason. It's extremely versatile and can be used to make both meat-based and seafood risottos.
- Vialone Nano - works best with vegetable based risottos.
- Baldo & Roma - work best with risotto that needs to absorb flavors of the liquid as much as possible, such as in tomato risotto, but if cooked with attention they are great for meat and fish based risottos as well.
These general rules are great to follow if you have a variety of choices. But it's also true that you can make all kinds of risotto with any of the rice types above.
There are just a few important rules to follow that will help you make the most of any of the rice type above.
How To Make The Most Of Any Risotto Rice
- Never rinse risotto rice in water.
- Always briefly toast the rice before making risotto. In a dry pan or large pot distribute the rice so that it creates a layer that covers all the bottom of the pot and toast it on medium heat for a few minutes.
How will you know when the rice is toasted?
Here’s a little trick. At the beginning, the thick layer of rice will stop any heat from coming through. So, if you raise your hand above the pot, you won’t feel anything. When you start feeling the first heatwaves and a light aroma of the rice, it means you've toasted the rice correctly and you're ready to move to the next step.
- Choose the right pot/pan to cook risotto. It should be not too wide but mostly important not too narrow. Perfect size is of that one about 5-6 cm or 2 inches high and wide enough to be able to fit rice and all other ingredients including liquid risotto will be cooked with. Choosing a pot that is too tall will prevent rice from cooking evenly, will make it difficult to stir and get perfectly creamy consistency risotto is famous for.
Rice Types That Are NOT Suitable For Risotto
Please note, that no matter how precisely you've prepared your rice for risotto, if you've chosen the wrong type of rice, your risotto will fail.
Certain types of rice are simply not suitable for making risotto.
Basmati, Jasmine and any other long-grain rice types should be avoided.
Unlike the varieties we mentioned above, long-grain rice doesn't contain enough starch to make the signature risotto cream. More of that, the starch contained in long-grain rice has very high amounts of amylose.
This also holds true for such rice varieties are brown rice, black rice, red rice, whole grain rice. High amounts of amylose make the grains more resistant and prevent starch from turning into the cream that makes risotto… well, risotto.
Therefore, long grain and whole-grain varieties shouldn’t be used for this particular meal, as they are better suited for other recipes such as salads, side dishes and pilafs.
Now that you know the best rice varieties that make the perfect Italian risotto, all you need is to which choose which one of the delicious risotto recipes you'll prepare next.
Risotto Recipes You'll Love
Saffron Risotto – super creamy and easy to make.
Spinach Risotto - with fresh of frozen spinach. Easy, flavorful and full of nutrients.
Zucchini Risotto - creamy, delicate, perfect for any occasion. Approved by kids!
Porcini Mushroom Risotto – flavorful, fragrant and utterly delicious.
Pumpkin Risotto – super creamy & comforting. Fall favorite!
Pear Risotto With Gorgonzola & Walnuts - this pleasantly sweet, slightly tangy and super creamy risotto is a celebration of unique flavors and textures.
Red Wine Risotto With Italian Sausage - delicate and creamy risotto paired with seasoned bites of Italian sausage cooked in red wine and flavored with fragrant herby fresh rosemary sprigs.
Asparagus Risotto - bright, delicious risotto made with asparagus cream.