Why It Works
- Briefly simmering shrimp shells and heads with aromatics produces an intensely flavored shellfish stock.
- Using a classic risotto cooking method allows for better control over the final texture of the rice.
- Stirring raw shrimp into the rice just before serving prevents them from overcooking.
- Intentionally loosening the risotto with stock right before serving ensures that it will set up to the proper consistency when plated.
Risotto cookery has long been a hot topic of debate around these parts. “Stirring is for suckers; it’s so tedious!” “Rinse the starch off!” “Use a pressure cooker!” “Italian grandmothers are full of it!” It’s Marriage Story meme gold. I’m not interested in stirring up more controversy over the best way to cook risotto, I just really enjoy stirring rice.
One of risotto’s best qualities is that it’s a blank canvas for flavor; how you choose to paint it is a matter of preference. This recipe uses a more classic cooking approach than the innovative methods used in other risotto recipes on Serious Eats, and it produces a shrimp risotto brimming with deep shellfish flavor.
The easiest way to impart flavor to the rice is by cooking it in an intensely aromatic stock. Oftentimes this can be accomplished by simply infusing a neutral chicken or vegetable stock with assertive ingredients like dried porcini for mushroom risotto, or saffron for risotto alla milanese. Morsels folded into risotto, like seared fresh mushrooms, provide pops of flavor and texture in the final dish, but the stock is really doing the heavy lifting. For shellfish and seafood-based risottos, making stock from scratch is the way to go.
The Quick and the Head: Keys to Great Shrimp Stock
The most important part of making a good shrimp stock is using the right shrimp for the job: head-on shrimp. The shells and heads are rich in glutamates and nucleotides that contribute savory aromas, along with sugars and proteins that contribute to Maillard browning when subjected to heat. Long story short: shells and heads equal flavor. Some of these flavor compounds are nonvolatile, meaning that they don’t dissipate during cooking, but the primary compounds responsible for shrimpy flavor are very volatile, which means that they evaporate during cooking. What does that mean for making shrimp stock? Just that it’s a very quick process. After cooking the shells and heads in olive oil (some of the aromas we’re after are fat-soluble, and the oil coaxes them out and then traps them) along with aromatics and umami-rich tomato paste, I add water and simmer the stock for just ten minutes before straining out the solids. The most intensely flavored shrimp stock is a quick-cooked one.
During recipe development I conducted side-by-side tests of risotto made with shrimp stock that used just shrimp shells and stock made with shells and heads. The head-on shrimp stock risotto was the clear winner—it boasts a far richer and deeper shrimp flavor, even though I used the same weight of shell-on and head-on shrimp, meaning that there was more shrimp meat in the shell-on version.
We always recommend purchasing individually quick frozen shrimp as opposed to shrimp that have already been thawed (most shrimp available for purchase are frozen as soon as they are harvested to preserve texture and flavor). This is particularly important for head-on shrimp, as the heads contain enzymes that can make the shrimp’s meat mushy. Freezing halts this process, so you’re much better off buying frozen shrimp, which allows you to control the thawing process. Thaw the shrimp as close to when you plan to make the risotto as possible.
Stirring the Pot: Classically Cooked Risotto Isn't a Slog
With the stock squared away, we can turn to the rice cookery. I start by sweating finely chopped onion in a wide-bottomed saucier (the sloped walls of a saucier or Daniel’s favorite pasta pan are perfect for risotto, and a 5-quart capacity is ideal, but even a 3-quart will work). If you don’t have a saucepan in that style, a Dutch oven or even a skillet will work just fine. I then toss in the rice (I’m partial to carnaroli) and toast it until the grains smell nutty and start to look like ice cubes—translucent around the edges and opaque in the center.
I add a pinch of red pepper flakes and deglaze with white wine before adding a cup of tomato passata and a ladleful of the shrimp stock. Tomato is a choice, not a requirement, for shrimp risotto. You can omit tomato paste in the stock and the passata in the risotto if you prefer an in bianco preparation. I find that the savory, sweet, and acidic notes of tomato pair very well with the deep shellfish aroma in the stock.
Now comes the fun or tedious part, depending on who you ask. I love the rhythmic process of constantly stirring and tossing the pot as the rice absorbs each addition of stock. I find it soothing, and it's also a great excuse for a little alone time in the kitchen. “Don’t talk to me right now, I’m making risotto!” is generally considered socially acceptable behavior. Take advantage of it.
Keep adding stock, keep stirring and tossing, and in a little under 15 minutes the rice grains will have swelled, becoming tender around the edges, with a firm raw bite at the center. While I said earlier that I don’t want to argue over the merits of different risotto methods, I think it’s worth noting that in my experience I’ve found that the classic cooking method maintains that textural integrity of the rice much better than no-stir or pressure-cooker risottos. The grains stay more distinctly separate while being suspended in liquid, while the other methods produce rice that is slightly blown out and melds more into the stock.
I stir in the shrimp and more stock, keeping the pan on the heat just long enough to cook the shrimp through, at which point the rice will have reached the perfect doneness, toeing the line between firm and crunchy at the very center of each grain. I finish with a handful of chopped parsley, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a splash of stock.
Timing Is Everything: How to Serve Risotto
This is the point where timing is everything. You need to plate the risotto quickly, on warmed plates (not bowls, if you’re being a purist). It’s important to keep in mind that no matter how fast you move, the risotto will tighten up in the time it takes to get it from the saucepan to the plate and then into the mouths of your dinner guests. So, you need to hedge, and have the risotto at a looser consistency than you are comfortable with. The term that always gets used to describe the proper flowing texture of risotto is all’onda, or “to the wave.” When tossing and stirring the rice in the pot, it should be loose enough to make waves, and quickly fill in the negative space whenever you drag a spatula across the bottom of the pan. Right before plating, make it just a little bit looser than that. Not swimming in broth, but it should definitely be high tide in the saucepan.
Many risottos are finished with butter and cheese to provide extra creaminess to the rice. The issue with dairy is that it can also mute the other flavors in the dish. For this recipe, I prefer to let the deep shrimp flavor of the stock shine. This risotto is plenty rich as is.