Rice balls are a delicious deep-fried snack that is often served as an appetizer in Italian restaurants. These little golden globes of delightful rice and gooey cheese pair wonderfully with a tangy marinara sauce.
Maybe you had a thought when admiring one of these tasty treats – where are these from? Are they a creation of the East-Side-Mario’s-Industrial-Complex, or an Americanized version of traditional food? Why does the rice inside a rice ball taste so good?
There is a surprising amount of history and science inside each one of these deep-fried delights. Let’s get into 5 fascinating facts about rice balls!
Sicilian Food Versus Italian Food
North Americans tend to group together all Italian cuisine together. Those knowledgeable about Italian food understand that this is an oversimplification. Modern “Italy” was founded in 1861, making it surprisingly young for a region that has been inhabited for thousands of years. The mountainous terrain that runs through the country’s middle is one of the many reasons Italy took so long to unify.
Italy’s states have long been relatively independent from one another. This is most clearly demonstrated with language. Italian dialects are surprisingly differentiated, with approximately a dozen variations of Italian spoken across the country. These language groups give some insight into cultural divisions in Italy.
While rice balls – known as Arancini – can be found anywhere in Italy these days, they originated in Sicily. Sicily is the large island just south of the Italian peninsula. The cuisine features more fish and vegetables, while other Italians eat more wheat and beans. Sicilians also make a square thick-crust-style pizza known as sfincione. MoreArabic, Greek, and Spanish influences can be seen in Sicilian food compared to other areas of Italy.
History of Rice Balls
Many people assume that all deep-fried foods are recent creations. For Arancini, this is not the case. Rice balls are thought to go back to around the year 1000, though it is unclear how these would resemble rice balls from today.
Rice balls have an interesting connection to a historical event. Palermo, Siracusa, and Trapani celebrate “Santa Lucia” day on the 13 of December. This marks the arrival of the boat Santa Lucia in 1646, which brought a shipment of wheat to the island, ending a famine. To commemorate, people don’t eat wheat for the day and instead eat rice balls.
Another historical moment relates to Italian rice – while rice has grown in Italy for a long time, it was a marginal crop. Weather conditions in Italy are not quite right for rice. In 1839, a Jesuit priest returning from the Philippines brought back 43 varieties of rice to Italy. This was bred with local varieties to develop plants more suitable to the climate.
Risotto, Not Rice
The rice used in rice balls is first cooked before being rolled up, coated, and deep-fried. This rice is not steamed in the fashion typical in Asian cooking but is instead cooked risotto-style. What is risotto-style rice, and why is it used in rice balls? Let’s find out.
Italians are known for their pasta and bread. Still, rice is also popular in some regions of Italy, particularly Lombardy, Piedmont, and Veneto. Italians produce 1.3 million tons of rice each year – over half of Europe’s annual rice yield. This is less than 1% of overall rice production globally, but it does show that Italy’s rice production is still substantial.
Risotto is a popular way to prepare rice in Italy. This is quite different than steamed rice, as the texture is creamy, almost like a porridge. In risotto, rice is cooked using stock (often chicken stock) rather than plain water. Unlike regular steamed rice, risotto is made by adding small amounts of stock, allowing it to cook, and only adding more stock once the liquid has reduced.
Why use this laborious method? This is actually necessary to achieve that fantastic texture risotto is known for. Rice releases starch when it is agitated in hot water. That starch is responsible for the creamy texture. By adding a small amount of stock, the rice grains are all closely packed, allowing them to bump up against one another, causing the starch to be released. If you were to add all the stock at once, the rice grains would be dispersed and would not be adequately agitated.
This relates to why risotto is used in rice balls rather than conventional rice. The creamy sauce that covers the rice becomes gluey and sticky when it cools down. This allows for better ball formation – regular rice is not sticky enough and will fall apart during the breading and frying steps. To make arancini, you should use risotto that has spent a least an hour in the fridge, though it is often best to use leftover risotto. This is a valuable method to get more out of your meal for those who don’t enjoy leftover risotto.
The Rice Use in Rice Balls
Risotto – and therefore rice balls – should only be made with Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano. As you might expect reading the above section, this has a lot to do with controlling the starch content. It is worth comparing these varieties to some other types of rice you may have in your pantry that you should not use for making rice balls.
- Risotto rice – these are considered medium grains and are high in starch.
- Basmati and jasmine rice – these long-grain rice varieties are low in the starch needed to make risotto. It would be nearly impossible to achieve a creamy texture.
- Sushi rice – this short-grain rice is packed with starches. When steamed, sushi rice already releases a large amount of starch, leading to a sticky texture. Using this rice in risotto would lead to a gluey messy rather than a silky porridge.
It might be possible for a skilled rice ball cook to use short-grain rice, but it is not advised, especially if you are a beginner.
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Rice Ball Filling
Other than rice, there are several different fillings used in rice balls. The most common is mozzarella, which achieves a deliciously gooey texture when the rice balls are deep-fried. Other traditional fillings include tomato sauces, peas, and other cheeses. The risotto itself has plenty of parmesan cheese, so the cheesy flavor from the filling is magnified by the rice.
Fillings are added after the rice has had a chance to cool. Sauces that are added should also be refrigerated so they are less runny. Once filled, the ball can be closed, rolled in bread crumbs, and deep-fried. Arancini can be thick, so they need to be deep-fried up to 8 minutes before the exterior is entirely crisp and the interior is hot.
There you have it, more than you ever thought you wanted to know about rice balls! A lot more complex than you would have thought for a seemingly simple appetizer. Understanding the background of food like this helps you appreciate the nuances of the humble arancini.
Sicilian Style Filling for Rice Balls
Arborio rice is generally what is used for these rice balls. A low sodium chicken stock is recommended for added flavor. I like to wait for the rice to cool down a bit and add a generous amount of Pecorino Romano some sweet peas to the rice as well and some eggs. Depending on the amount of rice anywhere between 3 to 5 eggs. To this mixture I also incorporate some whole milk Grande Mozzarella. For the meat I make a Bolognese type filling with peas. Once the rice and meat are prepared it’s best to allow them to cool before beginning the process of forming the Arancini.
Rice balls final Steps
Add about a tablespoon of meat to the rice ball. Before completing the formation of the rice ball add a small block of fresh mozzarella to the middle. This is entirely optional but I love cheese! At this point you will want to crack about 8 eggs and whip them. Add your rice balls to the eggs and add to your seasoned breadcrumbs. Repeat this step until they are all completed. At this point you can fry refrigerate them if you like, or freeze them for up to a month. Fry them at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 3 to 4 minutes. In small batches so you don’t cool the oil to much and you get that crisp outer layer.
Tips For Frying Rice Balls
- Be certain that the oil is up to temperature before frying the rice ball. Nothing worse then an oil logged rice ball.
- Cook your meat sauce or Bolognese in advance. As well as your rice it makes for a much easier experience in the kitchen.
- Create an assembly line. Line up your rice meat eggs, breadcrumbs etc. and ask a friend sibling girlfriend, wife to help. It will go a lot smoother quicker and cleaner with a helping hand.
- When reheating never double fry. Preheat the oven to 375 for about 12 minutes and they will come right back to life.
- Store them refrigerated for up to 3 days.
- A deep fryer is a preferred method as the entire rice ball will be submerged in the oil. If you don’t have one use a cast iron or heavy bottomed pot
Is there some kind of Italian or pizza-related food you would like us to write about? Let us know! Every delicious dish has its own history and origins. It is always exciting to learn more about the food you love.