This dish is very important in my personal history. 

I had a Milanese boyfriend who loved rice. And I loved him, so by extension I loved risotto allo zafferano, the signature dish of Milanese cuisine. 

I was very happy living in Milan and I ate this dish on various occasions and situations, sometimes with my (now ex) boyfriend, other times with friends, and with many people visiting. 

I am a foodie and a tourist guide of soul and profession so whoever came to visit me had to take something of the essence of where I lived. And the risotto allo zafferano was part of the tour. 

Related post: Italian food: One day eating like an Italian

What story do you want to know about risotto allo zafferano?

What does the dish saffron rice or risotto allo zafferano represent?

This dish is almost poetic in its meaning as it has two elements: rice and saffron.

The first is a staple food, accessible to everyone, rice, what you eat when you are short of money, when you are sick, when you don’t want to add more worries to your life. Rice is a harmless, nutritious and accessible food, a friend that takes care of you by giving you not what you want, but what you really need.

The second element is the antithesis of the first as it is: expensive, rare and difficult to get. Obviously it is much easier to get saffron today than 500 years ago, so in the past this dish was much more contradictory, and its meaning was more accentuated.

On the one hand, rice, friendly and accessible, and on the other saffron, scarce and inaccessible.

This dish tells us about a society that improved its quality of life and had access to scarce luxuries. The dish has a golden colour and there is even a chef called Gualtieri Marchesi who reverted this dish by placing a gold leaf (edible) on the surface to exaggerate the meaning of the two opposite poles of society represented on the dish. 

risotto: riso, oro e zafferano
Riso, oro e zafferano, Rice, gold and saffron, from the chef Gualtieri Marchesi

A real work of art!

The history of saffron risotto

Saffron originates from Asia, from the Arabian Peninsula. It arrived in Europe from Spain with the Moorish conquests and from there, the monks of the Holy Inquisition took the cultivation of saffron to central Italy, especially in Abruzzo, which remains an area of saffron. 

This spice, as precious as gold, was initially used to dye fabrics and obtain the yellow colour of the frescoes

Rice came to Italy through Sicily. The origin, as we know, is Chinese, but it found fertile soil in Sicily first and then in the Po Valley. 

According to legend, an early example of saffron risotto, from which the Italian dish ‘arancini’ also seems to derive, came to northern Italy through Jewish traders. However, this version is little known and the Milanese claim a completely different origin.

The Milanese, they tell a more romantic story, and we love it!

We are in the middle of the 18th century in Milan: Mastro Valerio di Fiandra worked on the decoration of the stained glass windows of the Duomo together with his assistant who was nicknamed Zafferano because he added the spice to all the colours to make the stained glass windows brighter. 

Then, when he married the mastro’s daughter, the assistant convinced the cook to put saffron in the risotto, putting into practice what the mastro ironically reproached him for: “Sooner or later you will put saffron in the food too”. Here is the legend of this dish that has conquered the city of Milan where it is often affectionately called “riso giallo” or yellow rice.

Is saffron risotto the same as risotto alla Milanese?

In Milan there is also the dish risotto alla milanese, few people understand the difference between saffron risotto and risotto alla milanese. 

They are almost the same thing in fact, the difference lies in the ingredients. In both cases, saffron is the main ingredient, but in risotto alla milanese the osso buco is added and the wine is omitted.

Saffron risotto can be considered the basic version: a stir-fry of oil and onion is prepared, the rice is toasted and mixed with the wine, then it is cooked by adding broth and saffron. At the end it is eaten with cheese and butter. The recipe for risotto alla milanese instead foresees the cooking of a part of the osso buco and the addition of marrow to the risotto. It should not be mixed with wine to prevent it from covering the taste of saffron. 

Let’s go to our dish then!

Risotto allo zafferano recipe

The recipe is very simple but there is one detail. Some Italian grandmothers told me that it is better if the rice is from yesterday, because of the texture they say, probably 100 years ago they did it because of the shortage. 

The secret to an excellent result is the quality ingredients: Carnaroli rice keeps cooking perfectly; using saffron strands is better. Let it infuse for at least one night with 2 tablespoons of water; and filter to add to the risotto! Otherwise, replace with saffron powder. 

Perfect as a first course for all occasions: from a simple family lunch, to the most special occasions! Its golden yellow colour makes it perfect to be included in colourful menus!

Time of cooking
  • Preparation 10 minutes
  • Cooking 20 minutes
  • Total 30
Ingredients for 4 people
  • 320 gr of carnaroli rice
  • 1, 5 lt of hot meat broth
  • 1 white onion
  • 2 teaspoons of saffron threads or 2 sachets of saffron powder
  • 1 cup of dry white wine
  • 100 gr. of butter
  • 70 gr. grated cheese grana padano (or any cheese)
  • Salt
How to make Saffron Risotto
  1. First, peel the onion, chop it finely with a knife and place it in a large saucepan (where you will prepare the risotto), along with a spoonful of butter, taken from the total ingredients.
  2. Then stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the rice, toast it for half a minute over a medium-high heat, stirring constantly. This operation will allow you to obtain an “al dente” risotto and whole grains!
  3. Then add the white wine and let it evaporate completely by stirring.
  4. Add a spoonful of hot broth. Stir, bring to boil and continue to simmer, adding broth each time the risotto is about to dry. Make sure the broth is hot, otherwise the cooking will be lost.
  5. Finally, when the rice is cooked al dente, add the saffron bags (or if you have chosen to use saffron strands; add two spoonfuls of the water with the soaked saffron you put in the night before.
  6. Stir very well over a low heat. Taste to see if it is missing salt, and add it if it is missing. At this stage the risotto should not be liquid, but cooked and dry.
  7. Then add the butter and grated cheese, stir with a wooden spoon to make the saffron risotto creamy!
  8. Only if it is too dry, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of hot broth! The final risotto should be smooth and creamy.

Serve the saffron risotto hot!