Saffron risotto is one of the easiest versions of this traditional rice dish that's delicately flavored, comforting and delicious! Great as a side to so many dishes, too.
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For whatever reason, we got a bit out of the habit of eating risotto for a while. When my elder son was very young, I made various rice dishes that snuck in some vegetables that were pretty much staples in keeping him fed as I could spoon him a bit here and there.
But, then, it all went a bit out of favor. The boys would be fine with rice alongside Asian dishes where there was some kind of sauce to soak in, but for whatever reason the cheesier Italian take didn't quite cut it any more. I could never understand why as they are such cheese fiends.
That was until I made my pumpkin risotto a couple years ago which they absolutely loved. I imagine part of it was that they helped make it (always helps get success). Plus we topped it with the aged balsamic vinegar that we brought back from Bologna. And it was just so creamy and delicious.
Since then, we've had that version a few times and I keep being tempted to sneak in others. They've been OK with my butternut squash version, but I decided to branch out with this one. And it worked, as everyone loved it.
Is saffron risotto the same as risotto alla Milanese?
The Milan version of this classic rice dish is very simple and is enriched with saffron, butter and parmesan. It has a relatively rich, creamy and delicate flavor.
But as well as the saffron, what makes it different from most risottos is it uses beef broth and beef bone marrow to add flavor in the early stages of cooking.
Most other risottos use a lighter broth, such as chicken stock (or vegetable to be vegetarian). Many also add some white wine as the initial liquid for flavor as well. So technically, if you use these rather than the beef base, it would be a "risotto allo zafferano" rather than "alla Milanese".
What kind of rice should you use?
Traditionally you would use carnaroli or arborio rice (plus some others that are less well known). Both are native Italian short grain rices with arborio the one found most widely internationally.
However most areas of Italy actually tend to prefer carnaroli, as do many Italian chefs. It apparently has less tendency to overcook and makes a creamier risotto (as described in Fine Cooking's comparison).
If you can't find the Italian varieties, another short grain rice would be your best option as a substitute. If not, then a medium grain, but ideally not long grain.
The reason for the shorter grain is this style has a higher starch content which helps give the dish it's classic texture. It tends to absorb less and so gets that slightly stickier texture rather than becoming either a soup, mush or too dry.
How do you use saffron?
I know, the biggest criticism of saffron is its cost, but a tiny amount goes a long way. You'll be amazed at how the color of your dish changes with just the smallest amount. It definitely adds a lovely delicate flavor as well.
In case you were wondering, the reason saffron is so expensive is that it is literally the dried stamens of a variety of crocus flowers. You don't get all that many per flower and it's a labor-intensive process. But despite that, saffron is used in many cultures including Spanish, Italian and Persian cooking.
You can buy saffron in either the stamen or powdered form. In the past, I only ever saw stamens but powder is becoming more popular and I have to say I prefer it. It's a lot easier to just add straight in to a dish, as long as there is some liquid. You can even just sprinkle a little on things.
With the stamens, you really need to let them "bloom" to get best results. That means soaking them in a little warm water (or stock, for example, if that's what you are using in the recipe) to let the color bleed out. If not, you may get more patches of color.
In this dish, pretty much all recipes add the saffron right towards the end. While I haven't tried adding it earlier to compare for sure (I don't really feel like wasting ingredients), I believe the flavor isn't as good if cooked too long.
Final tips for making this dish
You make this dish in much the same way as any risotto, softening the onion, coating the rice in the fat then gradually adding the stock. You do need to stir now and then, but not too often until the end.
If possible use homemade stock - it really does make a difference to the flavor of the end dish and saves their being too much salt, as can happen with bought stock.
As you get towards the end of adding the stock, check if the rice is cooked. You are looking for slightly al dente. Then add the cheese and butter off the heat. Technically, you are best to add the cheese first then stir through the butter, but I don't think it makes a huge difference if you add both together.
This saffron risotto is silky smooth, creamy and rich with a delicate flavor. The traditional Milanese version is often served alone as a kind of appetizer or with osso bucco, but other pairings work well too. We had it with lamb chops which paired perfectly and when made with a lighter stock, seafood would also be great. However you have it, enjoy!
Try these other rice dishes
- Japanese mushroom rice (kinoko gohan, with lovely umami flavors)
- Persian sweet rice (shirin polow, with sweetened carrots and saffron)
- South African yellow rice (a quick and easy side)
- Spanish black rice paella (arroz negro - a meal rather than a side but delicious!)
- Plus get more Italian recipes in the archives.
- 1 onion (medium)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 ½ cups arborio rice (or carnaroli, if you can get it, even better)
- ½ cup white wine dry (see notes below)
- 3 cups light stock (see notes below) - suggest homemade chicken or vegetable, if possible
- 2 pinches saffron or a scant ⅛tsp saffron powder
- ½ cup grated parmesan medium-well packed - can use a little more
- 2 tablespoon unsalted butter
- Warm the oil and butter in a medium pan over a medium heat then add the onion. Cook for around 5 minutes until the onion softens, but make sure it doesn't brown (reduce heat or add a little more butter, if needed).
- Add the rice and cook for a minute or two so that it becomes glossy from the oil/butter. Add the wine and let it bubble away until it is largely absorbed.
- Then add just enough stock to cover the rice. Keep adding a little more stock (around ½ to 1 cup at a time) as the previous amount is absorbed, stirring now and then so that it doesn't stick. Typically, it doesn't need stirred much to start with but more towards the end. Add the saffron with the last of the stock - if you are using powder, you can just sprinkle it in the pan as you add the stock, if using stamens, add some to a little warm stock or warm water and let it sit for around 5 minutes before using so that it 'blooms', releasing the color.
- Once the rice is cooked to just al dente and the stock has been absorbed, remove form the heat. Stir through the parmesan, and butter so that both are well distributed and melt into the risotto. Adjust seasoning to taste, if needed and serve.
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