Learn how to make Arancini, the irresistible Sicilian finger food: fried risotto balls stuffed with meat sauce. Helpful step-by-step pictures included!
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I first tasted arancini, a classic Italian snack, during one of my first trips to Italy, but I fell truly in love with them in Sicily, where the dish comes from. In Sicily, arancini—gooey, cheesy, crispy fried risotto balls—seemed to be sold everywhere, ready to delight us at breakfast time, lunchtime, and late afternoon. Sicilian arancini are the perfect finger food: creamy rice, a variety of scrumptious garnishes, melting cheese—all of that, in a neat little fried package? I can’t think of anything else to serve with cocktails at your next dinner party.
Arancini are made with leftover, cooled risotto. They’re often stuffed with ragu, a simple meat sauce, and a chunk of mozzarella cheese. The risotto balls are then coated in crunchy breadcrumbs and deep-fried until crisp, which reheats the risotto and melts the mozzarella cheese. The real delight of arancini resides in its textures: the contrast between the crunchy shell and the gooey center is just irresistible.
Although Sicilian risotto balls are usually stuffed with meat sauce (I like to stuff mine with homemade Bolognese sauce—so delicious!), you can keep things simple and stuff them with mozzarella or flavor the risotto you’ll be using. The best arancini I tasted in Sicily were made with pistachio risotto: it was such a luxurious bite! I also like to flavor risotto with lots of lemon zest. The sharpness of citrus is a nice contrast to the otherwise rich flavors and textures.
Probably the best arancino I ever had in Italy, stuffed with pistachios and mortadella, at Caffetteria Biancomangiare, in Ragusa, Sicily.
The word arancini is a diminutive of arancia, which means “orange.” “Arancini” means “little orange,” and that’s a reference to the shape and color of the treat.
The gooey center of Sicilian risotto balls is mozzarella cheese. You can cut mozzarella into cubes to stuff them into arancini, or you can use mini bocconcini, which conveniently come in tiny balls that are easy to slip into cold risotto.
The risotto used to make Sicilian risotto balls is flavored with parmesan. For the best flavor, I like to use aged Parmigiano-Reggiano.
A classic spread of snacks—complete with arancini—served for the aperitivo (happy hour) in Catania, Sicily.
Cold risotto is easy to work with. Although shaping and preparing arancini for frying involves a few steps, if you prepare your workspace properly, you’ll be able to breeze through the process.
Quick tips to shape Sicilian risotto balls without making a mess:
Refer to the full recipe, below, for the entire process, but here’s a glimpse at the process of shaping Sicilian risotto balls:
Traditional Sicilian arancini are quite large, about 2.5 in (5 cm) in diameter—hence the comparison with small oranges!
Bite-sized arancini are great! This works especially well when you use no stuffing: this produces a snack closer to the Roman supplì, a smaller-sized fried rice ball. Arancini and supplì are close cousins, anyway.
Bite-sized arancini make a lot of sense, especially if you plan to serve them as part of an array of cocktail finger foods. To make bite-sized arancini, I would make the risotto extra-cheesy (since you won’t stuff it with extra cheese) and create balls with about 1.5 tbsp of risotto. Adjust the frying time because bite-sized arancini will cook much faster.
You absolutely can. I don’t have a deep fryer and make arancini more often than I care to admit!
Making arancini without a deep fryer requires you to be extra careful: Use the largest pot you have, make sure the oil doesn’t come up higher than the lower third of the pot (you only need 3 in/8 cm of oil to fry arancini properly), and always, ALWAYS remain glued to the stove while you’ve got hot oil on it. I strongly recommend clipping a deep-fry thermometer to the pot’s side to ensure the oil remains at the proper temperature. You can buy a reliable deep-fry thermometer for less than $10—this is a small investment that will help you be safer in the kitchen.
You can bake arancini instead of frying them, but if you plan on doing so, I would recommend making bite-sized arancini instead of the traditional, larger size. Smaller arancini will bake more easily and become crisper than larger ones. Baked arancini won’t get as crispy as fried ones, but they will still be delicious.
To bake arancini, preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C). Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Grease the foil with cooking spray. Roll arancini using 1.5 tbsp (22 ml) of risotto, then dredge them in flour, egg, and breadcrumbs as indicated in the recipe. Set on the prepared baking sheet, then generously spray the arancini balls with cooking spray. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the arancini are golden brown. (You can broil the arancini for a minute or two at the end of the cooking time to give them more color, if desired.)
Yes, you can make Sicilian risotto balls ahead of time. Prepare and fry the arancini as indicated in the recipe. Transfer the fried balls to a cooling rack and let cool to room temperature. Store in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
It’s easy to reheat Sicilian risotto balls that have been refrigerated. Simply set the arancini on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and reheat in a 350°F (175°C) oven for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
I would not recommend freezing fried or baked arancini. The freezing and thawing process could make the filling and rice too watery and cause the arancini to lose their shape and/or never return to their original crispy glory.
You can, however, prepare the risotto balls, stopping before the dredging process. Set the “naked” risotto balls on a baking sheet and freeze until hard. Transfer to an airtight container and freeze for up to 1 month.
Thaw the arancini in the fridge overnight. Dredge the arancini in flour, egg, and breadcrumbs and fry just before serving.
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