Everything you've ever wondered about picking the right rice for risotto.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already been convinced that you can’t make risotto using any old rice from the grocery store. You know that arborio is smaller, rounder, and stickier than Uncle Ben’s—all qualities that help make risotto the creamy, dreamy miracle that it is. But maybe you’ve seen (on our site!) that there are other types of Italian rice with names like carnaroli or vialone nano. Or that there are other Italian rice dishes, such as timballos and tiellas, that don’t seem to require the same lushness as a great risotto. There’s a lot more to Italian rice than meets the eye! We’re here to help.
First, some science. The reason that arborio—and the other Italian types we named above—is so different from American long-grain rice is its starch composition. All rice varieties have different proportion of two main starches: amylopectin and amylose. The former, amylopectin, tends to dissolve out of the rice when cooked with water, creating a sticky surface on the grain and emulsifying with the cooking liquid to make a creamy sauce. Amylose, on the other hand, gelatinizes within the rice grain, so the rice becomes soft as it cooks but the grains remain distinct from each other. (Fun fact! These same two starches account for the difference between waxy and floury potatoes.) Asian sticky rices and the Italian varieties we’ve named are all variations on the rice plant known as Oryza japonica, and they have a higher level of amylopectin. American long-grain rice and basmati are cultivars of Oryza indica and are higher in amylose. Different plants, different properties!
What this means in the kitchen is that any Italian rice that has a small, rounded grain is an Oryza japonica variation and will make a decent risotto. But it’s in the tiny details within this category where Italian chefs get very opinionated. (No surprise there!) And while arborio was the first Italian variety to gain international recognition as the “risotto rice”—as far back as 1989, the New York Times called arborio “the short-grain Italian rice most Americans use to make risotto”—most chefs we know prefer carnaroli for the job.
The ideal risotto has an unctuous, creamy sauce but distinct rice grains that have a tiny firm “pearl” at their center—just like the ideal pasta is a little al dente. With a teensy bit more of that amylose starch, Carnaroli stays intact longer so it retains that al dente pearl during the lengthy cooking time and vigorous stirring called for by a traditional risotto. Softer arborio (and its sister variety volano, which often gets mislabeled as arborio) runs the risk of getting mushy in the process. Vialone nano, while not as well known, is very similar to carnaroli and is commonly used for risotto in Venice, where it is grown.
So, should you get rid of your arborio? Never! Its softness is actually its strength; in quicker-cooking preparations and baked dishes where the heat is not as direct, arborio will cook through perfectly where carnaroli would be too crunchy. It’s still sticky enough to hold together in gorgeously molded timbales like sartu di riso, and won’t take ages to cook in quick meals like Giada’s one-pan shrimp and rice. If you’re making a modified “baked risotto,” you’ll want to stick with arborio because the rice doesn’t get agitated as in a traditional risotto recipe, so carnaroli won’t release enough starch to give that unctuous final product.
If you’re going to stock just one kind of Italian rice and plan on using it for lots of different meals, we still say arborio is your best choice. It’ll give you the greatest versatility, and will make a perfectly delicious risotto—as long as you aren’t serving any picky Italians. But if you’re looking to up your risotto game, turn to carnaroli for restaurant-quality results every time.