The History of Risotto, the World's Most Challenging Dish

Who could resist a serving of wonderful, warming risotto? This classic Italian dish is comfort food at its best. But did you know that in spite of its simplicity, even accomplished cooks cower in fear at the prospect of making it?

While the process of making risotto is not complicated, it requires patience and the proper technique to get it just right. If it’s not done properly, it’s all too easy to end up with a mound of glue-like starch rather than a creamy, appetizing dish.

Ready to learn more? Here, we’ll discuss all things risotto, including its history, fascinating facts you may not know, and some handy tips and tricks for making it right.

History of Risotto

Photo of a bowl of risotto topped with asparagus
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The road to risotto began as early as the 14th century B.C. It was during this time that rice was brought to Italy and Spain by Arabs. Italy turned out to be well-suited to growing short grain varieties of rice, and it quickly became a big food source for the country.

As for the creation of the risotto dish? According to lore, it was a prank gone wrong. The daughter of Valerio of Flanders, a master glassmaker, was set to be married to his apprentice. There was a bit of a running joke about the apprentice’s love of saffron, which he even used to tint stained glass.

Apparently his friends and family prepared a rice dish rich in saffron to be funny, but the dish turned out to be so delicious that it caught on and became a local, then international, sensation.

True story? Hard to say, but it’s a good one all the same.

What is Risotto, Anyway?

Photo of a bowl of risotto topped with mushrooms
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Many people think risotto is a type of pasta, but that’s not the case. It’s a dish made of rice, in particular short-grain, high-starch rice, such as arborio, carnaroli, or vialone nano.

When cooked with broth and flavorings, the highly absorbent rice absorbs the liquid, giving the dish a full-bodied flavor and a pleasing, thick, creamy consistency.

Is Risotto a Main Dish?

Photo of a pot of risotto cooking on a stove
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How does one eat risotto ... as a main dish or a side dish? In Italy, risotto is often served as a small-portioned “primo piatto” course before the main course.

However, these days, that is not a hard and fast rule. In the United States, it’s not unusual to see risotto listed as either a main dish or for a smaller serving to be served as a side dish.

The Rules of Risotto

Photo of two hands pouring water into a pot on a stovetop and stirring it
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Looking to make a perfect batch of risotto? Here are some of the secrets to risotto-making success:

  • Don’t overcook it. It’s easy to overcook risotto. The key to avoiding this fate? Remove the pan from the stove when there’s still a little liquid left. The residual heat will continue to cook the rice and help it absorb the extra liquid.
  • Add liquid a little at a time. Too much broth or liquid can make the rice mushy. To avoid overdoing it, add liquid a little bit at a time and let it absorb before adding more.
  • Serve immediately. Risotto is one of those dishes that tastes best right when you make it. However, if you do find yourself with leftovers, be sure to add some butter or olive oil when you reheat the mixture to help revive its texture.

Ready To Risotto?

Photo of a bowl of risotto with silverware and a glass of white wine
Credit: zodebala/ iStock

Risotto is a challenging dish to make, but it’s well worth the effort. By taking the time to make it correctly, you’ll be rewarded with a creamy, delicious, and comforting Italian dish that will make your soul sing.

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