We’re on a quest to cook all of Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection recipes. Lt’s find out what the Fat Duck chef has done to complicate the humble risotto.
As a gorgeously satisfying fat-laden starchy carbohydrate dish, we like to think of risotto as the roast potato of Italy.
Like roast potatoes, risotto seems to be a dish that’s easy to make to an average standard, but requires studied dedication to perfect, making it an ideal candidate for Heston’s In Search of Perfection series. It also made for good TV, since it gave Heston a chance to knock about round Italy meeting his favourite chefs and suppliers.
I never used to be much of a fan of risotto-making. All that constant stirring is just so boring and repetitive, a bit like the atrocious 2013 film Spring Breakers. But we’ve made a few risottos lately and I’ve started to enjoy them more.
Did Heston’s journey and advice from world-famous Italian masters result in the ultimate risotto recipe? Let’s find out…
Recipes: Heston’s Perfect Risotto recipe
Special Equipment: Spice grinder or small blender, stick blender, pressure cooker
Special Ingredients: Pandanus leaves, saffron
Time: 1 full day
Serves: 4 – 6
So here’s Heston making his perfect risotto recipe on the In Search of Perfection show:
And here’s what we’re aiming for, Heston’s Perfect Risotto dish as it appears in the In Search of Perfection book:
Recipe note: Heston’s In Search of Perfection risotto recipe isn’t just a recipe for risotto. There’s also a mock-cappuccino made with a mushroom veloute and topped with dried mushroom powder, served alongside Horlicks and coffee and salt “sugar” cubes and toasted rice tuilles.
This side dish is one of those trompe-l’œil efforts Heston is so fond of – basically one food made to look like another (see also: Meat Fruit). It’s a fun addition to his Perfect Risotto recipe, but we also think it’s a deliberate affectation, designed to pad out a 30-minute TV show about an otherwise simple dish.
For that reason, and to save ourselves a bit of ball-ache, we won’t be including it in our recreation of Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection Risotto recipe.
(It really is completely superfluous. Imagine this recipe was a film, for example, the woeful 2013 film Spring Breakers. The Mushroom Cappuccino would be the unnecessary Selena Gomez character, when really you’re just interested in the rice / Vanessa Hudgens).
Step 1: Blanched Chicken Thighs
Heston’s Perfect Risotto recipe requires a “perfect” chicken stock and, surprise surprise, making that chicken stock is going to be quite a complicated affair.
Start by chopping up a full kilo of chicken thighs.
Then blanch them in boiling water for 5 minutes.
We won’t be using this first lot of water, because after about 4 minutes it’s gonna look like this…
…that grim-looking foam on top is all the scum that’d risk creating bitter flavours in the stock. This initial blanching makes sure that you won’t taste any of those.
So get rid of that scum by skimming it away, then draining the chicken and rinsing the pieces under the cold tap to wash off any remaining gunk.
Step 2: Pressure Cooked Blonde Chicken Stock
Re-cover the chicken pieces with fresh water in your pressure cooker, put the lid on, and place over a high heat until you get to full pressure. They’ll need half an hour, which is plenty time to chop up the veg for the stock, especially if you’re as slow at chopping as I am.
After 30 minutes depressurise the cooker (you can do this quickly by just putting the pan in the sink and running cold water over the lid). Add all those vegetables you chopped up and some peppercorns too. Cook for another 30 minutes.
Depressurise the cooker yet again and then add a massive bunch of fresh parsley. Leave this to infuse off the heat for another 30 minutes.
There is method to this stop start madness. The vegetables and the herbs both contain delicate flavour compounds that risk being damaged and lost if cooked at high heats. The steps above will help to protect all those flavours and yield a delicate stock full of subtle flavours.
This might seem excessive, but it’s going to these sorts of lengths Heston Blumenthal uses to differentiate the merely very good from his goal of total perfection.
Step 3: Saffron Butter
Ah, good old Heston Blumenthal and his desperate need for butter. We’re beyond familiar with Heston’s requirement to add butter to every single dish he makes – Bloody Mary butter for the Chilli Con Carne, Chicken wing-infused butter for his Roast Chicken, gelled butter for his Bangers and Mash, even the sponge cake in his Perfect Baked Alaska dessert gets fried in butter. There’s nothing Heston loves more than to give you a rich finished dish and then heart disease.
Believe it or not Heston’s Perfect Risotto recipe doesn’t have a novelty finishing butter. It has two. There’s an acidulated butter, that we’ll make in a bit, and then there’s this Saffron Butter that’ll be used as a final garnish.
Making it is super-easy. Weigh out some Saffron and some butter…
Add a dash of hot water to the saffron and leave then smoosh it together with the softened butter.
Eventually the ingredients will be mixed together.
Smear this into a small flat-bottomed container that you’ve lined with clingfilm. Set it in the fridge or freezer for later.
Reserve this in the freezer for finishing the risotto with (it has to be frozen solid to stop it melting to quickly when used as a garnish).
Meanwhile, on the other side of the kitchen…
Step 4: Basmati Infusion
The parsley and stock should’ve had quite enough time fraternising by now.
Strain the lot through a colander and then a fine mesh sieve. Along with excessive amounts of butter another regular theme of the In Search of Perfection recipes, and Heston’s Perfect Risotto recipe is no exception, is the incredible amount of waste.
All these stock ingredients have no further use and should now get thrown away. Console yourself by remembering that all the flavours in this multitude of ingredients live on in your high quality chicken stock. The quality of that stock is exactly dependent upon how much actual stuff you infuse into it. Thoughts to bear in mind as we’re about to be even more wasteful. Add 100g of basmati rice to the strained stock and simmer for half an hour.
Ah, look at this lovely rice, soaked through with the precious chicken stock. Throw this away, too.
Yes, this is yet more waste, but there is a reason behind it. Heston’s Perfect Risotto recipe is intended to be a celebration of rice in all its many forms. Infusing basmati rice into the stock will help add that delicate flavour to the taste of the finished risotto. So, again, try not to feel too down about having to bin good ingredients.
Besides, after 30 minutes this rice is slushy and overcooked, so it wouldn’t be nice to eat anyways.
Step 5: Toasted Rice Butter
Hey, remember how we were only just discussing waste, and rice flavour infusion, and butter? Well keep all of that in mind for this next step. Frying some rice in butter, then throwing the rice away. (Honestly, there’s almost as much money being wasted here as there was on the frankly dreadful 2013 film Spring Breakers).
In this instance its carnaroli risotto rice. The grains will be toasted to bring out their nuttiness, which will infuse into this butter. Drain and then yep, you’ve guessed it, bin the leftover rice.
Step 6: Acidulated Butter Emulsion
Unlike many a traditional risotto there’s no actual onion in Heston’s Perfect Risotto when it’s finished. Instead the flavour of the onion is infused into this acidulated butter we’re about to make. In the show this is a trick Heston learns during his risotto odyssey through Italy.
To make it begin by cooking a mixture of onions, wine and white wine vinegar.
Keep cooking until the liquid is reduced to almost a syrup…
… then strain through a sieve. Be sure to press on those onions to get all the liquid out.
Now you’ll want to start adding the toasted rice butter from the previous step. Add it bit-by-bit, whisking constantly to keep everything emulsified. This will eventually turn into a thick, soupy, buttery mass.
Chill this over ice to make sure it sets quickly (that emulsion will be very prone to splitting if you don’t).
We’ve had errors with making acidulated butter, specifically back when we made Heston’s Beetroot Spelt Risotto recipe from Heston at Home. We’re pleased to say that by being extra careful when whisking, and by reducing the wine and vinegar to a thin syrup, we managed to avoid that this time.
Step 7: Pandanus Crème Fraiche
He might like his traditional inspirations, but that Heston Blumenthal sure does like his oddball ingredients too. At least there’s a decent explanation for this next bit.
You see, Heston owns a copy of some high-end version of the Flavour Thesaurus. An analysis of the many flavour compounds found in foods, it’s a detailed and comprehensive thing developed by a massive Swiss company called Firmenich.
A bit like the humble Flavour Thesaurus book, it’ll tell you which foods share common compounds. This information can, of course, be used to work out which foods will compliment, enhance or contrast each other. It’s doubtless why Heston likes pairing things like strawberries and chamomile together. And probably where the inclusion of this next ingredient comes from.
Pandanus leaves are basically from the sub-tropical Pacific, tough, fibrous things used to make stuff like floor mats and nasi lemak. They also contain flavour compounds similar to that of risotto rice. So, to enhance the rice flavours that are key to Heston’s In Search of Perfection Risotto recipe, they’re being included.
The reason that you won’t recall seeing these in the veg aisle of your local Asda is that their use in Asian cooking makes them pretty obscure. We found ours in the Wing Yip Chinese superstore in Manchester, but you might be able to order them online. Heston’s recipe calls for less than a fifth of the pack. The rest? You guessed it! Thrown in the bin (unless you want to weave a small mat with them).
There’s a scene in the In Search of Perfection TV show that shows just how difficult it is to get the juice, and flavour, out of these leaves. A high end juicer might turn a huge armful of them into about a teaspoon of liquid. Not much use at home. Instead we’re going to shred the leaves as finely as possible (more surface area = more flavour release). Stir them into the crème fraiche and heat gently for 5 minutes allowing the flavour to infuse.
To really dial up the flavour release you then attack the mixture with a stick blender the way the dubstep soundtrack to the excruciatingly poor 2013 film Spring Breakers attacks your eardrums.
Push this lot through a sieve then store it in a bowl in the fridge ready to finish the risotto. Unsurpisingly, you won’t be needing as much as you’ve made.
I’m certain I don’t need to tell you what Heston says to do with the leftover pandanus shreds.
Step 8: Preparing the Rice
The 7 longwinded and extravagant steps above have all been leading up to this. You’ve now got all the components necessary to cook and finish Heston’s Perfect Risotto recipe.
Well, almost all the ingredients. You’ll obviously need some risotto rice, too.
It’s not often he does this, but on some occasions when researching his Perfection recipes Heston Blumenthal will encounter certain hero ingredients. Stuff from a specific producer of such high quality that this specific brand of whatever is mandatory in ensuring total perfection in Heston’s final dish.
Heston’s Black Forest Gateau recipe is best made with the specific Franz Fies brand of Kirsch, if you can actually find it. And right at the start of this Perfection journey of ours we used Heston’s recommendation of Rustichella Spaghetti to make his Perfect Bolognese. It really is very bloody good, and worth seeking out if your budget allows.
In this case Heston is tells you the absolute best choice of risotto rice for his Perfect Risotto recipe is Acquerello Aged Risotto Rice. We normally use Carnarolli rice from the supermarket, and that’s pricey enough as it is. To give you some perspective, we only found Acquerello rice on sale in Harvey Nichols. You can also find it online. It’s not cheap. Say… isn’t this meant to be a humble peasant dish?
Step 9: Cooking the Risotto
Right, let’s (finally) get cooking.
Our preference would, of course, be to make this risotto using the super-simple Modernist Cuisine method of bunging all the ingredients into a pressure cooker. But rules are rules and even gadget-loving Heston Blumenthal wants us to do this the old-fashioned way.
Set up two pans: one on a medium-low heat full of simmering stock, the other on a medium-high heat with some butter and the Acquerello rice.
Toast the grains, stirring constantly, until they begin to develop a nutty aroma (it is ok to thrust your nose into the pan to check for this). Then add a mixture of wine and Vermouth and reduce to a syrup.
Pour in half the stock, then get to work with your constant stirring. When it’s been mostly absorbed and there’s barely a few spoonfuls of gravy in the bottom of the pan ladle in some more stock.
Keep at it until you’ve run out of stock or the risotto reaches the right consistency.
Dump in the acidulated butter and that parmesan cheese I forgot to tell you to grate before we started.
For true authenticity, and as a tribute to Gualtiero Marchesi who provided Heston with crucial inspiration on his risotto research quest, cover the pan with clingfilm after you’ve stirred everything in.
Leave to stand for 5 minutes while you go warm up some plates (use a microwave) and get all those other bits we made earlier.
Step 10: Finishing the Risotto
Those 5 minutes are a good time to get out your frozen saffron butter and cut it into nice neat cubes. Or rough lumps, if your skills are closer to ours.
Heston likes a very specific type of presentation with his risottos: widely spread out to all corners of the plate, as if he’s trying to cool the food to room temperature as quickly as possible.
To do this pile your risotto into the centre of the plate, then hold it aloft and start tapping and tilting until it’s all spread out (and cooling rapidly, hence the warm plates).
Are you any good at making pretty little quenelles? I’m not! Which is why we’re putting more of a “splodge” of pandanus crème fraiche in the centre of each risotto, then surrounding it with cubes / lumps of the saffron butter.
And there we have it, Heston Blumenthal’s Perfect Risotto recipe from In Search of Perfection, completed at last.
We used to loathe making risotto, but our feelings have been changing recently. That’s more thanks to Modernist Cuisine than to Fat Duck chef Heston Blumenthal.
It’s being trapped at the stove stirring ceaselessly that we can’t abide. Thanks to the Modernist Cuisine at Home team and the pressure cooker risotto recipe they’ve developed that’s no longer a problem. Using this technique we’ve successfully made a couple of Heston risotto recipes, including his vinegar-assault Beetroot Spelt Risotto recipe from Heston at Home, and the utterly wonderful Pea Risotto recipe from Family Food.
For the latter we slightly altered Heston’s recipe to suit our personal tastes, cooking the onions before the rice and keeping them in the dish instead of using Heston’s overly-harsh acidulated butter.
So making a risotto using Heston’s In Search of Perfection recipe felt like a huge step backwards for us.
This time we weren’t overwhelmed by harshness that you can get from badly made acidulated butter, but we still miss the sweetness and texture of our lightly caramelised onions. Pandanus crème fraiche does add rice flavours and creaminess -and the tartness is a welcome relief from all that butter- but it’s main effect seems to be to complicate your grocery shopping.
Yes, the regular butter, acidulated butter and saffron butter all add up to a very rich and slightly greasy dish. No wonder you need to start with a full bottle of white wine vinegar.
Oh yeah, that saffron butter. Yes, it provides bursts of intense, saffron-y flavour. Just as the “optional” mushroom cappuccino side dish would provide an intense mushroom-y flavour. Saffron or mushroom are two of the classic risotto flavours (though, of course, we’ve had fun making risottos flavoured with pea or cauliflower, and just wait until we tell you about Heston’s Crab Risotto recipe).
Heston’s In Search of Perfection Risotto recipe is intended to showcase all the subtle and delicate flavours of rice, but your standard risotto ought to have a defining flavour, like mushroom, or like saffron. To half-include them feels like a cop-out, or a compromise. An admission that rice-flavoured risotto isn’t really what you’d want to be eating.
Like roast potatoes, risotto is a simple dish that only needs a few simple tweaks to make the best of. By devoting a full show to making his Perfect Risotto recipe Heston might’ve had the chance to meet his heroes and hang out with his mates, but he’s also made this humble meal unnecessarily complicated. But at least it’s neither as messy nor as dull as the 2013 film Spring Breakers. 12 months on and I’m still fuming about how bad that movie was.
If there’s one thing we’d take away from Heston’s Perfect Risotto recipe it’s that quality rice and proper stock are essential for making an incredible risotto, but beyond that you’re best off sticking to your favourite traditional risotto recipe. Or Modernist Cuisine’s risotto recipe. Those guys are awesome.
We’re starting to thaw on the whole risotto thing, finally learning to tolerate and even enjoy this humble dish, provided there isn’t too much stirring involved.
So, yes, we’ll be making more. And with good stock and a pressure cooker that’ll be a much easier task to accomplish. We might even use up the rest of this acidulated butter. But with so many wonderful variations to enjoy it’s unlikely we’ll be repeating any part of this specific recipe.
Monitor Muncher – This hugely respectable Australian blog has tackled a great many of Heston’s In Search of Perfection recipes, you can read a great and detailed write up of Heston’s Perfect Risotto recipe here. We’re pleased to see that they also omit the mushroom cappuccino.
Would you go to all this trouble just to make a risotto? Or what does your perfect risotto recipe involve? Please let us know in the comments section.