A Milan classic: risotto with saffron

A Milan classic: risotto with saffron

Risotto is probably my favourite Italian dish of all. It’s the pasta of Northern Italy: it’s so versatile that it can be combined with the most different ingredients, from seafood to meat, from vegetable to cheese, to make endless delicious creations.

Risotto with saffron is a great Milan classic: together with panettone, veal cutlet, ossobuco and cassoeula it’s one of the truly distinctive dishes from my hometown.

In other posts, I have already stressed how important stock is, and if that’s true for most Northern Italian dishes, that’s even more crucial with risotto. In this dish, the stock you’re using defines the final flavour, and your risotto is only going to be as good as the stock you’re using.

So it’s a good idea to invest in some high quality meat, and let it simmer away slowly for several hours, then cool down and skim before using, like indicated here.

I usually like to mix some beef and poultry, together with the usual carrot, celery stick and onion to get a tasty stock that’s suitable for most types of risotto, but you can use either, depending on your personal preference, or you can opt for a vegetable stock. In addition, if you’re making a fish or seafood based risotto, you can prepare a fish stock using fish trimmings and/or the shells of crustaceans.

In terms of the recipe itself, it’s pretty simple and it requires just a few basic ingredients and to follow some key steps. Indeed, risotto has become part of the repertoire of weekday meals in many households outside Italy too, so most people will probably already be familiar with the basics of making this dish.

However, there are some key things it’s worth keeping in mind to get an even better result:

  • Make your own stock.
  • Get the right rice: buy some high quality carnaroli Italian risotto rice. Another variety of rice utilised for risotto is arborio, however between the two I prefer carnaroli. An excellent producer is Acquerello.
  • Chop your onion (or shallots) very finely: you don’t want to feel pieces of half cooked onion under your teeth while you eat your risotto.
  • Toast the rice thoroughly before adding wine.
  • Let the wine evaporate completely: keep stirring and sniff at the rice to check any residual smell of alcohol has evaporated, before you move on to adding the stock. This can take a while, even after the liquid has all been absorbed, so be careful not to burn the rice while you do this. However, it’s a crucial step: a boozy aftertaste will completely ruin your dish.
  • Get proper high quality unsalted butter and parmesan for the final mantecatura, the process by which you stir into the finished risotto these two ingredients and stir vigorously to let it release its starch and get as creamy as it should be.
  • No cheating: cream, mascarpone etc. are absolutely banned from any risotto deserving of this name. Remember, the creaminess will come from using the right variety of rice, which is naturally starchy, and by the final mantecatura. You don’t need to add any enhancer, which will only weigh down the dish.
  • Get the right saffron: there are different types of saffron available on the market, however I found only certain varieties available in the UK are correct for this type of dish. So if you’re not buying an Italian brand of saffron directly, other good options that I’ve tried and tested are Brindisa’s and Waitrose’s.

Risotto with saffron


16-18 minutes

Ingredients (for 4 people)

1 shallot, finely chopped (or small onion)

Extra virgin olive oil

400g carnaroli rice

60 ml dry white wine

1.5 l meat stock

10 g saffron (in powder of stamens)

100 g grated parmesan

100 g unsalted butter


  1. In a pot, warm up the stock. Reduce the heat and let it simmer. 
  2. in a separate pot, heat up some extra virgin olive oil and then add the chopped shallot. Keep stirring and let it fry until golden brown. If it’s turning a bit too dark, you can add a bit of warm water and let it fully evaporate.
  3. Now add the rice, and let it toast by stirring constantly for a couple of minutes. It will be properly toasted when it turns a bit shiny and it comes off the bottom of the pot easily.
  4. Now increase the heat and add the wine: you’ll want the wine to evaporate as quickly as possible, hence the higher heat. Make sure no residual smell of alcohol can be detected, before you move to the next step.
  5. Now add a couple of ladles of broth, and lower the heat. Keep stirring slowly, and let it simmer and absorb the liquid.
  6. Continue to gradually add stock for a few more minutes, then add all the saffron. It will release its colour and flavour gradually. Keep stirring and adding stock as needed.
  7. After about 15-16 minutes from when you started adding the stock, it’s time to add butter and parmesan and proceed with the mantecatura. On a low heat, stir vigorously to let the cream fully develop. You don’t want the risotto to get too stiff and dry, so you can add a bit of stock if needed to keep it moist.
  8. Remove from the heat. Cover and set aside for 3-4 minutes.
  9. Put on individual plates. A classic way of serving is is “all’onda”, that is, slightly moist – but not completely covered with stock! – on a flat plate. Serve immediately.


  • A yummy way to use leftover risotto is to shape it into a fritter and pan fry it with some olive oil until a golden crust has formed on both sides.
  • Normally the saltiness of the risotto should come from the stock, not from adding salt to the dish itself.  However, you can try a spoonful of risotto at the end to check the level of salt is correct and if not you can adjust by adding some to the dish.