Authentic saffron risotto: the Italian recipe to traditional risotto alla milanese with step by step instructions. This creamy risotto with saffron and lots of parmesan is a beloved Italian main course. But you can also serve smaller portions as side dish, it pairs exceptionally well with beef.
Saffron risotto is probably one of the most famous risotto recipes. The wonderful marriage between the flavours of saffron and parmesan makes this dish elegant and delectable, a true pearl from the northern Italian cuisine.
If you want to add an authentic Italian risotto recipe to your repertoire, risotto alla milanese is an easy one to make. As long as you have all the ingredients ready, it will take less than one hour from start to finish.
Risotto alla milanese facts
Did you know that authentic saffron risotto is not vegetarian? The original recipe features beef bone marrow among its ingredients, and the risotto is cooked with beef broth. Since bone marrow is not easy to come by, I do not feature it in my recipe. But everything else follows the traditional recipe from Milan.
Rice pilaf with saffron had been known in Italy since the Middle Ages as a Middle Eastern recipe, but risotto alla milanese as we know it today had its official “birth” on September 8, 1574 when it featured on a wedding menu. Powdered saffron was used as a colouring pigment by glass-makers working the stained glass windows of the Milan Cathedral. When the daughter of the team’s master got married, they added saffron to the rice cooked in stock to colour it yellow. It was the first documented occurrence of saffron risotto.
You may be familiar with wine featuring as ingredient in risotto recipes, but it’s not true for all of them. According to the official saffron risotto recipe registered in Milan to protect its origin, wine does not list among the ingredients to risotto alla milanese.
Ingredients and ingredient notes
For detailed quantities, please refer to the recipe card at the bottom of this post. There you can also click to convert quantities from metric to US customary.
- Risotto rice like Carnaroli or Arborio is fundamental. These types of short-grain rice contain the right amount of starch to make the risotto naturally creamy.
- Butter! This is a recipe from northern Italy, where the cooking fat has historically been butter, and not olive oil.
- Grana Padano is the parmesan cheese produced in the Lombardy region where Milan is, thus accounting for the most local choice of cheese. Parmigiano Reggiano is a great alternative, like any other kind of parmesan cheese as long as it’s from Italy.
- Beef broth is the traditional liquid used to cook saffron risotto. It gives the final dish a deeper flavour than vegetable stock. Beef marrow lists in the original recipe, too, but I don’t have access to it so I normally do not include it in mine.
- You can use saffron threads of powdered saffron like I did.
How to make saffron risotto step by step
- Set a pan on medium heat and melt half of the butter. Mince the onion and add it to the butter. Sauté for about 5 minutes, extracting the flavour of the onion into the cooking fat. Reduce the heat if the onion starts to fry/burn. When the onion is soft and the butter fragrant, add the rice and toast 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
- Add enough broth to just cover the rice, stir and let simmer until absorbed. Repeat and continue working in batches until all the broth had been added and has absorbed into the rice. Stir from time to time to make sure that the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pan, lower the heat if this happens. You want to slowly evaporate the broth, so the use of medium-low heat is key.
- After the last addition of broth has been added and has almost completely been absorbed by the rice, remove from the heat. Stir in the saffron.
- After stirring in the saffron, add the rest of the butter and the grated cheese and stir to evenly distribute, helping both the cheese and butter to melt. This procedure will nail the perfect creamy texture.
- You may choose to reserve some of the cheese for the guests to sprinkle on top of their servings, or add it all in one go. Serve immediately.
Saffron risotto recipe tips
- Always keep a medium-low heat and never feel tempted to increase it to speed up the process. Each addition of stock needs to slowly get absorbed into the rice, in order to cook through each grain. Too high a heat will make the stock evaporate too quickly, not giving the rice enough time to properly absorb the liquid.
- The stock needs to be added hot. Bring it to a boil and keep it on low heat on another burner as you cook the risotto, to ensure every addition is the same temperature.
- If using powdered saffron you can just stir it in as it is (like in the picture above). However, if you are using saffron threads, you will need to soak them in broth prior to adding them. Reserve a couple of tbsp stock in a small bowl and soak the saffron threads as the risotto is simmering. Add the threads and stock mixture together.
- If possible, use high quality beef stock (best if homemade!) and avoid using a stock cube. This will compensate for the lack of bone marrow as per the original recipe. If you have access to bone marrow, you will need about 50g and it will have to go in the pan first together with the butter.
- You may not need to add salt, as you can see it’s not listed among the ingredients. A flavourful stock and the generous amount of grana padano should be enough to flavour this dish. However, feel free to stir in a sprinkle of salt at the very end, if the stock and cheese alone did not deliver enough saltiness to the final product.
More risotto recipes?
If you love risotto and you need more in your life, here’s some more:
- Red Wine Risotto
- Sausage Risotto with Radicchio
- Asparagus Pistachio Risotto
- Prosecco Risotto
- Radicchio Walnut Risotto
- Zucchini Cheddar Risotto
- Creamy Chanterelle Risotto
And for more saffron goodness you may want to try:
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Risotto alla Milanese
- 320 g risotto rice Carnaroli or Arborio
- 1 shallot or small yellow onion
- 100 g butter
- 0,5 g saffron 1 packet
- 1 L beef broth
- 80 g Grana Padano or other Italian parmesan, grated
- Bring the stock to a boil then lower the heat and keep it on low heat throughout the recipe. If using saffron threads, reserve 2 tbsp stock in a small bowl and soak the saffron threads (skip if using powdered).
- Set a large pan on medium heat and melt half of the butter. Mince the onion and add it to the butter. Sauté for 5 minutes, until soft, reducing the heat if the onion brown too quickly. Add the rice and toast 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
- Add enough broth to just cover the rice, stir and simmer until absorbed. Repeat and continue working in batches until all the broth has been added and has absorbed into the rice. Keep on medium-low heat and stir from time to time just to make sure that the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pan.
- After the last addition of broth has been added and has almost completely been absorbed by the rice (the texture is still a bit soupy), remove from the heat. Stir in the saffron, then stir in the rest of the butter and the grated cheese. Serve immediately.
- Never feel tempted to increase the heat to speed up the cooking process. Each addition of stock needs to slowly get absorbed into the rice, in order to cook through each grain. Too high a heat will make the stock evaporate too quickly, not giving the rice enough time to properly absorb the stock. Always keep you risotto simmering on medium-low heat.
- The original Milan recipe calls for bone marrow among the ingredients. To compensate for the lack of bone marrow in this recipe I recommend the use of high quality beef stock, possibly home-made. If you have access to bone marrow, you will need about 50g and it will have to go in the pan first together with the butter.
- A flavourful stock and the generous amount of cheese that goes into this risotto should mean that no salt needs to be added. Only stir in some at the very end, if the other ingredients did not deliver enough saltiness to your taste.