Risotto is a popular dish from northern Italy. Its basis is rice, cooked in broth until it has a creamy (as opposed to grainy) consistency with just a little "tooth" (al dente). A wide variety of other foods can be added to the risotto: cheese, vegetables, or meats. Risotto ai funghi, for example, is made with mushrooms while risotto alla pilota is made with sausage, pork, and parmesan cheese.
Why Arborio Rice Is Ideal for Risotto
If you are serious about your rice, you know that there are many different types.
They are generally organized into three groups: long, medium, and short-grain. Short grain rice is almost spherical in shape, while long grain rice looks a bit like a grain of wheat.
Whether they are long or short grained, all types of rice contain starches called amylose and amylopectin. These starches define the texture of the rice when cooked. Amylose, when cooked, does not break down into a gelatin-like consistency, while amylopectin does (pectin is actually the ingredient in jelly that makes it gel!).
Short grain rice contains more amylopectin and less amylose than long grain rice. This means that short grain rice is usually "stickier" than long grain rice.
Risotto recipes typically call for Arborio rice, a starchy, short grain rice named for the Italian town where it was first grown. Arborio's high amylose content helps give risotto its characteristic creaminess. Arborio also contains "chalk" (not the kind used on a blackboard).
Chalk gives arborio rice, even when cooked, that little bit of chewiness that the Italians called "al dente."
What Kind of Rice or Grain Can You Substitute for Arborio When Making Risotto?
Naturally, any rice (or grain) you substitute for arborio will have to have the same basic qualities as arborio.
That is, they must be high in amylose -- but able to maintain that little bit of chewiness even when cooked for a long time.
There are two other Italian rice strains that are often substituted for arborio. Carnaroli rice, a medium-grained rice that also has a high amylose content, is another classic — if lesser known — choice for risotto in parts of northern Italy. Another (harder to find) option is Vialone Nano, grown in the Veneto region. More rarely, Italians may use Balo, Calriso, or Maratelli rice.
But if you don't happen to have Arborio rice on your shelf and you aren't in Italy (or eager to spend a great deal of money on your rice!) don't feel restricted to Italian rice varieties. The key to successful risotto-making is to use a short or medium grain rice with a firm texture and high starch content. White sushi rice works nicely, as does Thai Jasmine rice.
If you're an adventurous cook, you can also go on beyond rice to experiment with starchy, rice-shaped grains, such as pearled barley or farro. Bulgur wheat, barley, and couscous can also make an interesting, tasty, risotto-like base for a meal.