I was deep into recipe development for corn risotto when I started to wonder if the dish might be fundamentally flawed. There were hurdles to saturating the creamy rice with corn flavor that also seemed integral to risotto cookery. First, heat drives off many of the compounds we associate with the vegetable’s fresh, sweet taste. Second, chicken broth and wine obscure the flavor further. When I tried to overcome these challenges by adding handfuls of snappy peak-season kernels to the pot and infusing the rice with a concentrated broth I’d made by simmering the spent cobs, I failed to capture the vibrant, sweet corn flavor that is the raison d’être of the whole dish.
Happily, it all worked out in the end, and even better than I thought it would. Because along with figuring out how to make risotto that’s suffused with the bright, grassy, buttery flavors of high-season corn, I discovered that corn itself can transform your average pot of risotto into one that’s exceptionally lush and velvety.
My framework was our unique risotto method, which produces rice as creamy as a conventional approach does but requires a fraction of the hands-on work. The key differences are that after sautéing the aromatics and Arborio rice and deglazing the pot with wine, we add almost all the cooking liquid (4 to 5 cups of warm chicken broth cut with water) up front and simmer the mixture in a covered pot for the better part of 20 minutes rather than gradually ladling the liquid into the rice while stirring constantly. Both methods cause the rice grains to slough off starch into the cooking liquid and form a viscous gel, giving risotto its trademark creaminess, but our method lets agitation from the simmering liquid do most of the work so that we need to stir the pot just twice during that first phase. Only during the last few minutes of cooking do we add a bit more liquid and stir constantly to enhance the risotto’s thick, creamy body.
Replacing the chicken-y cooking liquid with homemade corn broth and stirring kernels into the rice were two of the most common—and unsuccessful—approaches I found in my research. But no matter how long I simmered the cobs in water for broth, the liquid tasted dilute because the bare cobs had almost nothing valuable left to offer. And while there was loads of bright corn flavor inside the kernels, it was confined to sporadic pops, not distributed throughout the dish.
So I took a more radical approach and buzzed the kernels (3 cups), along with the pulpy, flavor‑packed “milk” I scraped from their cobs, in the blender, adding just enough water to engage the blades. The result was a sunny puree bursting with fresh corn flavor—an elixir of sorts that I hoped would transform my workaday risotto into corn‑saturated gold.
Before putting it to work, I strained the puree to remove the tough bits of skin, which left me with about 2 cups of gleaming liquid. Then I picked up with my risotto method, simmering the rice in a combination of the strained puree and water, the latter of which I swapped in for the chicken broth so that the vegetable’s flavor would stand out as much as possible.
The sun-colored rice certainly looked awash in corn. And thanks to the natural cornstarch in the puree, which gelled and acted like a silky sauce, the risotto was exceptionally lush and glossy (for more information, see “Liquid Gold”). But after simmering for nearly 20 minutes, the puree had a flat and, well, cooked flavor.
That test turned out to be my crash course in corn flavor compounds: Many of these compounds develop only after some cooking; others, including the grassy, fresh-tasting ones that I was going for, are volatile and vanish when heated. If I wanted to preserve fresh corn flavor, I had to wait until the rice was nearly done before adding the puree. This change altered the whole dish, saturating the risotto with the corn’s bright flavor.
In a last-ditch effort to maximize the corn’s presence, I circled back to adding kernels. A cup of them contributed just enough snap, sweetness, and color.
Then I took a closer look at the wine, which is almost as common in risotto as the rice itself but tasted harsh against the vegetable’s delicate sweetness. It had to go, but I needed to add something in its place that would further brighten up the rice. The unconventional answer turned out to be crème fraîche, a source of much subtler acidity as well as fat and rich dairy flavor that complemented the corn and enhanced the risotto’s already refined, luxurious consistency (see “The Dairy Godmother”).
I stirred in a generous scoop before serving, along with grated Parmesan, chopped chives, and a splash of lemon juice just to tease out the cultured dairy’s tang a bit more. The result was startlingly good—a next‑level kind of risotto, distinct and flavorful enough to stand on its own but restrained enough to accompany almost anything. My inauspicious start was a distant memory, and this dish was shaping up to be the raison d’être of many summer dinners to come.