The chef's blog
The Art, and a bit of science, behind the perfect risotto
In the previous article, we’ve understood the difference between rices from the perspective of making a perfect risotto. Having the right rice though, it’s only one part in the overall success of the dish.
The technique is of fundamental importance, without it, risotto simply won’t do. Obviously, the choice of the other ingredients is also important and following the phases we introduced in the previous article, we will also see how this choice of ingredients impacts on the results together with the technique.
The first phase we’re going to explore is the “soffritto” and as said before, there are different schools of thinking for each phase, each one with its pros and cons.
Deep frying and pan frying (Soffritto) are fundamentally two different things from the chemical and physical point of view. In deep frying, food cooks by “convection”, which means it’s completely surrounded by the fat or oil, the passage of heat (energy) happens from the heated fluid to the food, more like boiling but at much higher temperatures, which can reach 200ºC. In deep frying, fat distributes heat much more uniformly as it acts from all directions.
In pan frying, food cooks by “conduction” which means that heat is transferred to the food from the vessel (pan or pot) directly, but in a much less uniform manner, as obviously food comes in contact with the vessel with just one side at time. Even temperatures are very different as the contact surface is irradiated directly from the flame and it can reach much higher temperatures.
The soffritto is composed by two parts, the fat and the food we’re going to cook in it.
There are different kinds of fat for the purpose and each one ha its own properties which might vary sensibly.
Each fat is composed by two fundamental components, glycerine and fatty acids, where the latter greatly vary among different fats.
Some fat, such as animal fats or solid fats, are generally richer in saturated fatty acids, as opposite vegetable oils, generally richer in unsaturated fatty acids (monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, depending on the oil).
Heating a fat, the “smoke point” is reached, when fats decompose in its fundamental components. At this point, glycerine transforms into an acrid and irritant substance (which is called acrolein) which evaporates in the form of a foul smelling smoke, while harmful free fatty acids adhere to the food.
I won’t spend too much words on the nutritional aspects, that’s more a task for your doctor, so for the choice of fat to be used, I will merely stick to the organoleptic aspects, keeping in mind the right fat and technique to avoid unpleasant outcomes.
Among the oils. the best is definitely olive oil, followed by peanut oil. To be avoided soybean, canola and corn oil.
Animal fats, even with a higher content of saturated fatty acids, are not necessarily to be avoided, as they also have a much higher smoke point. Lard (pork fat) for instance, was Escoffier favorite and even now, many chefs prefer it for some preparations, especially for sweets. To be considered that the peculiar flavor of lard, might influence the final results.
I willingly left butter for last, as it is a case of its own.
The smoke point of the butter is “just” 130°C, plus it contains a certain moisture and other solids substances such as proteins and minerals, which at high temperatures burn and give the food an unpleasant flavors. The inconvenient can be avoided “clarifying” butter, leaving it to melt just under 100°C and eliminating the proteins and water which settle at the bottom, or even better using an “anhydrous” butter which is completely purified of any foreign substance but fat, by centrifugal force. Anhydrous butter can be found in specialized stores, typically in can, it has a very long shelf life and a very high smoke point, over 200°C (some source saying even 250°C) while a simple clarified butter can arrive to 140°C ~ 160°C.
In the most traditional risotto, butter is the choice, but some chef, and among them myself, prefer using olive oil for some risotto such as seafood risotto.
Whatever we use oil or butter, the most important thing, is always a precise control over temperature.
When food is added to the fat, such as the classical chopped onion, it is important to keep a low temperature, very low, around 100°C so that overall the onion cooks thoroughly but receiving more heat just from the contact surface and various processes of sugar caramelization and Maillard reaction happen slowly, allowing time for the flavors to fully develop and pass to the cooking fat. A this temperature. can be used normal, fresh, creamery butter, much more flavorful and complex.
At this point, even if more or less all chef agree on the low temperature, some chef take out the onion after frying, perhaps letting it brown first (and so completing a Maillard reaction), and others prefers to leave it in, whatever browned or not.
Maillard reaction, still under close scientific investigation, it’s a complex chemical and physical reaction, that produces many transformations and develops a vaste array of different pleasant flavors. Leaving the onion into the risotto, is mostly a matter of personal taste. Onion (or any other ingredient used in the soffritto), will release into the fat only fat soluble substances and aromas e removing it, you will loose all the rest. However, in white risottos such as Parmigiana or Monzese, the presence of browned or blackened particle, might be unaesthetic.
My suggestion would be to leave the onion into the risotto, but avoiding to brown it, as the Maillard reaction can be achieved later on, during the next phase of toasting, of which, we will talk into the next article.
In the next article, the toasting phase on April 26th
Executive Chef with over thirty years of field experience, passionate in the culinary world at 360º