Though traditional risotto is famously made with arborio rice—a starchy, short-grain rice that gives the dish its famously creamy texture—you can actually make it with a bunch of different whole grains. Farro, quinoa, couscous, oats—as long as it gets creamy after a while on the stove, it can be a great substitute for a risotto-like dish.
That’s great news if you, like me, live somewhere where it’s hard to find arborio at the supermarket. I didn’t make risotto on many occasions because I couldn’t track down the elusive rice. But now that I know I can use almost any grain in my pantry instead, I whip it up whenever the craving strikes.
The process for making risotto-style dishes with alternative grains is extremely similar to traditional methods, so if you know how to make one risotto, you know how to make almost all of them. Here, chefs break down exactly what you need to know. From how long to stir the rice to how much broth you should use, these tips will help you make a restaurant-worthy dinner with whatever grains you have on hand.
1. Choose your grain.
“Risotto can be made with many types of whole grains, from quinoa and barley to millet and farro,” Carlos Calderon, chef at North Italia, tells SELF. “The great thing about grains like barley is that you can still achieve the same creamy texture, which is what you would ultimately desire from a delicious risotto recipe,” he explains. Even couscous, which isn’t a grain at all, can get the job done.
The only grains you’ll want to avoid are really tough grains, like wheat berries or kamut. I learned the hard way that these will never get creamy or soft like a grain should for risotto, no matter how long you cook them or how much broth you add.
2. Gather the other ingredients.
For the most basic risotto recipe, you’ll need onion, garlic, white wine, veggie or chicken stock, Parmesan, butter, pepper, and salt, Juan Munoz, chef at Proper Food in San Francisco and New York City, tells SELF.
If you want to add any other ingredients—veggies like asparagus or mushrooms, meat like bacon, or any other cheeses—cook them separately and stir them in when the risotto is nearly finished.
3. Find the tools you’ll need.
You’ll need a medium-sized oven-safe saucepan, a large pot, a wooden spoon, a knife, a ladle, and a grater (unless you’re using cheese that’s pre-grated).
4. Heat up the broth.
Fill up your large pot with a bunch of broth—at least 6 cups. Throughout the risotto-making process, you’re going to gradually ladle this broth into the rice until it’s mostly gone.
The broth needs to be simmering, or it’ll mess with the way the risotto cooks, so set the pot over a medium heat while you prep the rest of your ingredients. That way, it’ll be ready to go when you are.
5. Sauté garlic and onions until soft.
Dice a small onion, finely chop two cloves of garlic, and set both aside. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to your small saucepan and set it over a medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and a pinch of salt, and cook until translucent and tender but not brown. It should take about eight minutes. (Fun fact: Onions won’t continue to cook in acidic ingredients, so you have to cook them all the way through before you add the wine.)
6. Add grains and wine.
When the onions and garlic are softened, add whichever grain you’re using and stir. Then, add 1/2 cup of wine and let it cook until all the alcohol burns off (you’ll be able to smell it).
7. Add the broth gradually and prepare to stir.
Note: If you’re using brown rice, skip to step 8!
If you’re using a grain aside from brown rice, Munoz recommends following a traditional risotto recipe. That means you’ll have to babysit it and stir it until it’s ready, which will take about 30 to 40 minutes depending on which grain you’re using.
Add a ladle of broth and stir constantly until it’s mostly absorbed. Then, add another ladle of broth, stirring again until it’s mostly absorbed. Repeat this until the grains are fully translucent and tender—taste as you go to make sure you don’t accidentally overcook it.
Keep extra stock on hand, because Munoz says you’ll never know how much you need when you’re mixing up the grains. “Grains like barley will take a long time to cook and need much more stock,” he explains, “sometimes double the amount.”
8. For brown rice, use the oven instead.
Making brown rice “risotto” is even easier than actual risotto, says Munoz. That’s because after the wine has reduced, all you have to do is add broth, cover it, and stick it in the oven for an hour. For every 1 cup of brown rice, use about 6 cups of broth, he says.
After adding the broth, place the whole pan in a 375 degree F oven for one hour, says Munoz. When it’s finished, remove it from the oven, and stir in 2 tablespoons of butter and 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese. Let cool and enjoy.
9. Add butter and cheese, and dig in.
Finish your risotto-like dish (no matter which grain you’ve used) by stirring in 1 tablespoon of butter and 1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese for every 1 cup of grain you use. Or, more, depending on your personal taste.
I followed these tips to make risotto with brown rice and another with bulgar, and both were absolutely delicious. In fact, they were so good, I don’t plan to go out of my way to find arborio anytime soon.