Whole Grain Risotto? Experts say YES!
If you’ve ever ordered risotto in a good restaurant, you know that it’s a masterpiece of slightly al dente rice carried in a sea of creamy deliciousness, often enhanced with vegetables, fish or other goodies. And, if you’ve actually cooked risotto at home – or even if you just read cookbooks and let others do the cooking – you know that the rice usually recommended to use for risotto is arborio rice, a short-grain white rice.
Arborio rice is used because it readily gives off starch as it’s cooked and stirred, creating a wonderful creamy base from the stock, cheese and seasonings you’ve added to the rice. Switching out that white arborio rice to readily available (often long grain) brown rice just doesn’t create the same creamy goodness.
Delicious as traditional risotto may be, it turns out that risotto can be both delicious and whole grain, so why should we compromise? In fact, the universe of whole grains offers more varieties than you might imagine for creating rave-worthy risottos.
We asked the WGC’s Culinary Advisors, a team of famous chefs and cookbook authors, to give us their best tips for making whole grain risotto, and the starting point, apparently, is to use short grain brown rice.
“Any short grain rice is good; short has more amylopectin,” reports Robin Asbell, author of The New Whole Grains Cookbook and Big Vegan. “Some of the pigmented rices are also nice, Himalayan Red is 20 minutes and beautiful, Chinese Black is almost as pretty as squid ink.”
Let’s pause a minute here for a little techy-talk. There are two kinds of starch in most grains: amylose, with very simple molecules, and amylopectin, with a more complex, branched structure. Grains high in amylose cook up light and fluffy – a positive trait for pilafs – while grains high in amylopectin give off starch as they cook, making them great for creamy risottos or for the sticky rice of sushi. They’re both good; it just depends on what you’re cooking.
We love Robin’s idea of going beyond brown rice to other colors, an idea backed by Ellie Krieger, renowned nutritionist whose Healthy Appetite show on The Food Network is wildly popular. “I have a delicious Black Rice Risotto, that I did for Food Network Magazine,” she told us, while also mentioning her new book, Comfort Food Fix, out this month.
L to R: Robin Asbell, Ellie Krieger, Judith Finlayson, Kathryn Conrad, Paul Lynch, Jesse Cool
Judith Finlayson, author of The Complete Whole Grains Cookbook, agrees with using short grain rice. “I have had very good success making risotto with short-grain brown rice; for best results you soak it for at least 3 hours, preferably overnight. I buy the rice in bulk at my neighborhood health food store so other than being short-grain and brown, I can’t tell you anything about it." Her book features two risotto recipes: Brown Rice Risotto (page 229) and Roasted Red Pepper Risotto (page 232).
But does risotto always need to be made with rice? Technically yes, since the name risotto comes from the Italian word for rice. Increasingly, however, creative chefs are using risotto-like techniques to make similar dishes with other grains. Judith also mentioned making barley risotto, and Kathryn Conrad, Chef and Senior Food Stylist at Readers’ Digest, emailed us saying, “Honestly - I don't really like any whole grain rice for risotto all that much --- I do LOVE using bulgur in risotto method dishes; delish. Very nutty, chewy, satisfying. Like rice-based risottos, bulgur based ones make a great vehicle for vegetables, cheeses, fresh herbs.”
Paul Lynch, Executive Chef at the Firelake Grillhouse and Cocktail Bar in Minneapolis, agrees, saying, “I actually prefer faro or barley, they create an excellent "cream" from the starch as they cook.” We can attest to Paul’s faro risotto; he cooked it for the top winner of our 2009 “I Love My Whole Grains” contest and it was delicious! Jesse Cool, owner of CoolEatz in Palo Alto, reported that her executive chef chimed in with, “Barley. Spelt. Basically any wheat berry.”
Are you hungry yet? The answer is, a wide variety of whole grains can be cooked with broth and herbs to creamy, risotto-like perfection. If you’d like to experiment for yourself, here are a few recipes from our WGC Culinary Advisors:
Paul Lynch’s Fennel and Cremini Whole Grain Risotto
Kathryn Conrad’s Barley Basil Risotto with Fresh Asparagus and Corn (pictured above)
Ellie Krieger’s Black Rice Risotto
Joel Schaefer's Buckwheat Risotto with Goat Cheese
And a few other inspirations on the WGC website:
Sprouted Brown Rice Vegetable Risotto
Oatmeal Risotto with Cherry Tomatoes and Basil
Buon appetito! (Cindy)