CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- To stir or not to stir.
That is the question posed by risotto aficionados.
It's not an age-old question. Italians have been making the creamy peasant dish for centuries, and they always have stirred. In its simplest form, it requires only one pot, a gradual addition of liquid -- and nearly constant stirring.
Some newfangled recipes add almost all the liquid at once, accompanied by only an occasional quick stir.
Most risotto recipes begin with a sauté of chopped onions in butter and oil until they are tender, but not browned or burned.
To the sautéed onions, rice is added and stirred until lightly toasted, about three to four minutes.
Not just any rice goes into the risotto pot. It must be either widely available arborio rice or harder-to-find Camaroli rice, which stays firm even after absorbing liquid or Vialone Nano, which absorbs the most liquid. Arborio produces a soupier texture.
After the rice is toasted, warm and flavorful broth is gradually, a ladleful at a time. A gentle stir accompanies each pour. Under the cook's watchful eye, the rice absorbs the liquid. The process is repeated throughout as many ladles are stirred in until the tender rice sits in creamy comfort.
This is all there is to the dreaded stirring command. Cooks are not anchored to the stove, as is often reported, but rather nearby to give a stir with the addition of broth. This doesn't mean the cook should go downstairs and fold three loads of laundry between pours.
That's the time-honored method of risotto making.
It creates a creamy, comforting dish that can be either a side or entrée. Its accommodating nature accepts a wide variety of enhancements, including vegetables, meats, seafood, wines, cheeses, spices and herbs -- even strawberries and chocolate.
Then there's the audacious "almost no stir" method. Skeptics may scoff at this shortcut method, but I decided to give it a try. At first, the recipe resembles the traditional method, right up to the point at which the wine is absorbed.
The recipe paths diverge at the next step. Instead of gradually adding liquid, nearly all the broth is added at once and simmered on low heat for 16 to 18 minutes, stirring only twice, until almost cooked.
Then the rest of the broth is added and stirred like mad for a few minutes until creamy. Butter, cheese and any other fresh or cooked ingredients are added at this point.
Simple, but would it work? Yes, it did. I made the basic parmesan risotto below based on a recipe from Cooks Illustrated and was pleasantly surprised at the creamy results. The recipe took about half an hour.
Several days later, I made risotto with the more traditional method. I watched the pan closely and added broth gradually, stirring each time.
My tasters gave a slight edge to risotto made in the time-honored, stir-intensive manner. Of course, they weren't doing the stirring. Because the results are similar, I'll choose my method for future risottos based on the complexity of whatever else I'm cooking at the same time.
After the taste test and resulting leftovers, we're a little risotto-weary at the moment, but I already have a recipe for my next risotto adventure -- Wild Mushroom Risotto with Pancetta and Sage, from the recipe below. This is not a one-pot, simple recipe. And stirring will be required.
Traditional Parmesan Risotto
Serves 4 to 6.
4 cups chicken broth
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 3/4 cups arborio or carnaroli rice
1 cup dry white wine
Salt and freshly milled pepper to taste
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
BRING chicken broth to a boil, then reduce heat to lowest setting, cover and keep warm. Liquid used in risotto must always be warm.
MELT the butter with the oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for about 3 minutes until onion is soft and translucent, but not browned, stirring frequently.
STIR the rice in with the onion. Cook, stirring, until toasted and opaque, 3 to 4 minutes. Stirring is essential to break down the starch in the risotto. A wooden spoon works best.
STIR in the wine and 1/2 cup stock and continue to cook, stirring until most of the liquid is absorbed. Continue stirring and adding a half-cup to a full cup of broth at a time, waiting until the liquid is absorbed each time before adding more, until the rice is tender and creamy yet still a little al dente, about 18 minutes.
TURN off the heat and add Parmesan cheese and most of the parsley. Stir gently while the cheese melts. Taste for seasoning and adjust to taste.
GARNISH with remaining parsley and serve with additional Parmesan on the side.
5 1/2 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoons olive oil