Know your baldo from your arborio? What’s the difference between roma and vialone nano? And which rice is best for risotto? Find out with this quick guide to the top Italian rice varieties.
Until relatively recently, people in the northern regions of Italy didn’t really eat pasta. After the introduction of the maize plant to Italy from the new world in the 16th century, polenta became a popular staple, but for at least two hundred years before this, the major crop grown in the north of the peninsula had been rice. It’s no surprise therefore that the most characteristic dish of this area is risotto, found across the north of Italy with regional variations, from the golden saffron infused risotto alla milanese to the national dish of the Venetian Republic, risi e bisi, literally rice and peas.
Many english-language recipes call for ‘risotto rice’ as if it’s a thing. But today, there are many different varieties of rice, grown and used in Italy for risotto and other recipes, and they are not all equal. To help you find your way around, and in preparation for some risotto recipes I’m going to be posting in the next couple of months, here’s a quick guide to the main varieties of rice used for risotto in Italy today and their characteristics.
Italian rice is divided into four categories: common, semifine, fine, and superfine. The finer the rice, the longer the grain and the longer the cooking time. Cooking times vary from between 12 minutes for common rice to up to 18 minutes for superfine.
In general, rices with a higher starch content tend to be used more for risotto, and they result in a creamy texture as the starch mixes with the broth. This is a good thing, and it’s for this reason that you should never wash risotto rice before cooking. Rice in a risotto should be al dente, otherwise the grains will stick together and the finished dish will turn to mush.
This is a superfine rice with a high starch content and is generally considered the best for risotto making, and in it’s relatively short history—it was first developed in 1945—has earned itself the title il re dei risi, the king of rice. It has a long grain, with a pronounced dente or tooth (a small tag found on the end of the grains), and a small opaque area in the centre.
This is a superfine rice named after the town where it was originally discovered and cultivated. Nowadays it’s found all over the rice growing areas of the north. Arborio, is also considered excellent for risotto since it has the capacity to absorb a lot of liquid during cooking, but this can make it easy to overcook in comparison to carnaroli. The grains are shorter and more opaque than carnaroli too.
A more modern variety of superfine rice with a medium length grain, first cultivated in 1977. Again, it has a good capacity to absorb liquid during cooking, but you need to make sure you don’t overcook it.
A fine rice with a high starch content and easy to cook al dente. The grains are medium length with an opaque centre and a faint line down the middle.
A semifine rice which creates quite a dense textured risotto and is usually cooked without toasting the grains first. It is one of the oldest varieties of rice cultivated in Italy and the name has protected status in the Veneto. The grains are short and white.
Named after the man who discovered it growing as a hybrid in his fields in 1914, this is a semifine rice, rich in starch, and quite soft. The grains are short with a pronounced dente and a small opaque area in the middle.
A superfine variety, and again one of the oldest grown in Italy. The grains are long with a faint line down the middle.
What’s your favourite risotto? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.