A traditional, colorful saffron risotto from Lombardy, rumored to have been invented by delicious accident in 1574.
Saffron risotto is one of the staples of Lombardy, a region in Italy where rice is widely cultivated. With Italy’s reputation as the country of art and culture, a popular legend ascribes the origin of saffron risotto to art.
In 1574 an artist, who was working on the Milan Cathedral, accidentally poured some saffron (a natural pigment, largely used in the past by artists) into his rice. What a delicious accident! Lombardian saffron risotto is often confused with risotto alla Milanese. But there is one important difference between these two dishes: the Milanese version is prepared with beef bone marrow as an additional ingredient.
In the North of Italy saffron risotto is definitely the most popular risotto it is enjoyed by both children and adults. It is easy to make and light to digest. It can be enjoyed as a delicious first course or as a tasty main course when it is served with ossobuco, otherwise known as braised veal shanks.
The addition of saffron gives a colorful touch and a special flavor. There are several variations of the traditional recipe. Many chefs around the world interpret it in their own personal manner: for example the addition of porcini mushrooms, sausage, or prawns and other seafood. My recipe is simple, as tradition would have it, but with a little less butter and Parmesan.
5 Facts About Saffron
Saffron, known scientifically as Crocus sativus, has a history that dates back over 3,000 years. It was first cultivated in Greece and has been used throughout history in cooking, as a dye, and for medicinal purposes. The Saffron Crocus blooms in the fall, producing a beautiful purple flower. Each flower yields only three red stigmas, which are the parts of the plant used as saffron.
Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world, largely due to the labor-intensive process of harvesting. The saffron threads (stigmas) must be handpicked from each flower. It takes approximately 75,000 saffron flowers to produce just one pound of saffron spice, as each flower contains only three stigmas.
Saffron is renowned for its unique, pungent flavor and aroma, often described as slightly sweet, floral, and earthy. It’s also famous for its vibrant golden-yellow hue, which it imparts to dishes when used in cooking. This coloring comes from the crocin molecules in the stigmas.
Historically, saffron has been used in traditional medicine for various purposes. It’s believed to have mood-enhancing properties, and some studies suggest it can be as effective as certain antidepressants. Additionally, it’s been used to aid digestion, as an anti-inflammatory, and even as a heart health booster.
Saffron has significant cultural and economic importance in several countries, particularly in Iran, which produces about 90% of the world’s supply. It’s an essential ingredient in many traditional dishes, from Spanish paella to Italian risotto, and it’s also used in religious rituals and festivals in various cultures.
Step by Step Guide to Making Italian Saffron Risotto
- In a saucepan, gently warm the beef stock over medium heat, keeping it ready for use.
- Soak the saffron threads or powder in 5 teaspoons of the warm stock for 15 minutes.
Cooking the Base:
- In a large saucepan, heat 50 g (4 tablespoons) butter.
- Add the chopped onion and sauté for 2-3 minutes over medium heat.
- Add the rice to the pan, stirring it to coat well with the butter and onion mixture.
- Pour in the wine and continue stirring until it’s fully absorbed.
- Gradually add the warmed stock, one ladle at a time, while continuously stirring.
- Wait until each addition of stock is almost fully absorbed before adding the next.
- After about 9 minutes of adding stock, mix in the infused saffron.
- Continue cooking and adding stock for another 5-6 minutes until the rice is al dente and creamy.
- Remove the risotto from heat.
- Stir in the remaining butter and the grated Parmesan cheese.
- Season with salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste.
Resting and Serving:
- Let the risotto stand for 1-2 minutes.
- Serve immediately, garnishing with additional grated Parmesan cheese if desired.
Paola is Italian and cooking has always been her passion. In October of 2012 she founded her cooking blog “Passion and Cooking” to collect her recipes and give friends a sampling of true Italian cuisine. She collaborates with several Italian and American magazines and just published her first book - Love is Eating - Healthy and Tasty Italian Recipes for Family Meal.