Is Risotto Always Gluten-Free?

Yes, risotto is usually all rice. But is it always safe?

Scampi risotto - gluten-free
Is all risotto gluten-free?. Luzia Ellert/Getty Images

Risotto — a traditional Italian dish that most commonly combines rice with ham, shellfish or vegetables — sounds like it ought to be perfectly safe for those of us who have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

If you think that, you'll be correct ... about 95 percent of the time. Unfortunately, it's that other 5 percent that can trip up those of us who follow the gluten-free diet.

What Makes Up Risotto?

True Italian risotto uses as its base Arborio rice, a short-grain white rice that has a high rice gluten content.

Don't worry: rice gluten is not the same thing as the gluten that bothers us.

The high rice gluten content in the Arborio rice gives risotto its creamy, rich consistency and texture. To give it rich taste, chefs coat the rice in butter or a mixture of butter and oil, and then add flavored broth to cook.

Additions such as basil, shrimp, meat, cheese, asparagus, peppers (or really any type of meat, fish or vegetable) are added at the very end to make a unique risotto dish. I've seen recipes involving sausage and wild mushroom, pesto, zucchini and roasted chicken, shrimp, garlic and mozzarella, and even butternut squash.

So Why Worry About Risotto?

As I said above, 95 percent of the risotto you run across is going to be gluten-free ... and of course if you make it yourself, you can increase your odds to 100 percent. But there are a couple of ways gluten can creep into risotto.

First, the broth used to cook the rice could contain trace amounts of gluten.

Most commercial broths do not contain the gluten grains wheat, barley or rye as an ingredient, but some are nonetheless potentially subject to gluten cross-contamination in processing. You can check out safe options here: Which Soups Are Gluten-Free?

Second (and more alarming for us): Some "risotto" recipes in fact call for using gluten grains in addition to, or in place of, the traditional Arborio rice.

I've seen recipes for pearled barley "risotto" and whole wheat berry "risotto," which obviously are going to make you pretty sick.

Third, I've seen several recipes for risotto "cakes" or fried patties that do include flour as an ingredient. Unless you know for certain that the chef has made these in a safe manner, I urge you to steer clear of them.

The Bottom Line

You can't trust risotto simply because it's risotto — it still may contain some gluten (or, in the case of a wheat berry-based "risotto," a lot of gluten). But risotto made in a way that's safe from gluten cross-contamination is a great meal.

Lundberg Farms sells Arborio rice that you can use to make your own risotto. Unfortunately, Lundberg's packaged risottos — which come in a variety of different flavors, including sprouted risotto — are made on the same production lines as the company's durum wheat-rice mixes.

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