For most of us who host an annual Thanksgiving or Friendsgiving dinner, getting the biggest meal of the year on the table in one crowd-pleasing piece is a matter of turning to old favorites. Don't get me wrong — I've added several "new classics" to my Thanksgiving rotation over the past few years, but for the rest of my menu, I want my tried-and-true, nostalgic faves. That's why I feel all kinds of chaotic trying to turn you and your taste buds on to my all-time MVP, kind of nontraditional, but wildly delicious Thanksgiving side for your celebrations this year.
(Just let me say my piece before you think to yourself, Nah, I'll stick to mac 'n' cheese again and click out of this post, alright?)
My love affair with Ina Garten's saffron risotto with butternut squash began back in my college days. Fresh off a traumatic (but 200% necessary) breakup, I did what any normal partygoing college student would do to heal: googled "best comfort food recipes." Since I'm a lifelong Ina Garten enthusiast, it felt fitting that I landed on this specific risotto recipe. I took a screenshot (peep the concerningly late timestamp), made a batch to share with my roommate, and proceeded to take the most gorgeously composed food photo the world has ever known to share on Facebook.
How it didn't go viral, I'll never know.
One day later, I demanded to serve it at our upcoming Thanksgiving in a text to my mom, who shares my deep, unrelenting love of Ina and every recipe she touches. If you don't believe me, for whatever reason, this is her cookbook shelf...
That Thanksgiving, we risotto-ed, we ate until we couldn't breathe, and we even made arancini (or fried risotto balls) in lieu of our traditional leftover sandwiches, and they have secretly become my favorite part of this holiday tradition.
I can proudly say that I've cooked Ina's risotto as a Thanksgiving side dish every year since. Fun fact: I've made it so often for basically everyone that it's become colloquially known in my circles as...ross-otto. Don't worry, I cringed as I wrote that too. It's also become the mac 'n' cheese replacement I never knew I needed, as wild as that is to say. It hits all the same savory, creamy, cheesy notes that a good mac 'n' cheese would, but it doesn't turn into pasta mush when made ahead; it's innately fall-forward (squash!), and it's just way more interesting, flavor-wise, IMO.
After nearly 10 years of trying new tweaks and techniques, this is my exact process for how I like to serve Ina's saffron risotto with butternut squash, which is also how I've turned my friends and family on to this unexpected but showstopping side dish at every Thanksgiving table.
First, here's absolutely everything you'll need for a single batch:
STEP 1: Roast the butternut squash. Preheat your oven to 400ºF and toss your cubed squash with 2 tablespoons olive oil, a generous amount of kosher salt (about 2 teaspoons), and a few cranks of cracked black pepper. Lay it all out on a parchment-lined sheet pan for easy cleanup and roast for 25–30 minutes.
Toss them around once or twice if you remember to, but as evidenced here, they'll be just fine even if you forget.
Most importantly, enjoy a cube (or five) as your chef's snack.
STEP 2: While the squash roasts, start the risotto. Bring your stock (or bouillon plus water) to a simmer in a medium saucepan. For the risotto itself, you'll want to use a large pot or high-walled skillet; a heavy-bottom vessel like a Dutch oven is best. Melt your butter over medium heat, then add your diced pancetta (or bacon!) and minced shallot and sauté for about 10 minutes, until the shallot is translucent and softened.
STEP 3: Add the arborio rice to the pot and stir it around to get it nicely coated in all that buttery goodness. Then carefully pour in the white wine. Reduce the heat to medium low and cook it for about two minutes, or until the rice appears mostly dry.
STEP 4: Add a pinch of saffron threads, along with about 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and a few more cranks of cracked black pepper. This is one of those spots where my version slightly differs from Ina's; she calls for a full teaspoon of saffron threads, which is very East Hampton of her, but I only use about a pinch. I actually busted out my scale to show you exactly how much, and it didn't even register as 0.1 grams.
STEP 5: This is when you'll start the one very involved (but ultimately simple) process of risotto-making — adding stock and stirring. Two or three ladlefuls at a time, add enough hot stock to just barely cover the top of the rice. Stir pretty frequently — every minute or so, as annoying as it sounds — until the mixture looks nearly dry. Here's what it'll look like when you first add stock...
...and this is what it'll look like when it's time to add more. Timing between each addition of stock can vary, but aim for 5–10 minutes. You'll repeat this process, stirring very frequently to prevent any rice sticking to the bottom of your pot, until the rice is cooked al dente. Overall cooking time depends on your stove, your cooking vessel, and even the brand of rice you use, but budget for anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes.
When it's done, it'll look something like this: creamy, starchy, and basically tripled in volume compared with where you started. It'll also have that signature, saffron-infused yellow tint, which will slowly become more and more apparent with each ladle of added stock.
STEP 6: Off the heat, add the roasted butternut squash and 1 cup of grated Parmesan cheese. Fold everything together delicately; ideally, you'll still have nice chunks of squash throughout instead of having them break up into tiny pieces.
And that, my friends, is it! If you're making the dish on Thanksgiving day, pop a lid on top and reheat it over low heat just before dinner, with a generous splash of stock to loosen it to your desired consistency. For a non-Thanksgiving dinner party, a soupier consistency is ideal, but for the holiday, where it'll need to play nice on a plate with other sides, I aim for a "thick porridge" consistency.
To make this risotto a day or two ahead, here's what you'll need to do:
You'll follow every step to a T until you hit the end of step 5. Instead of cooking the risotto until al dente, you actually want to go just shy of al dente: When you take a bite, it should still feel the teeniest bit dry in the middle of each grain of rice.
Take it off the heat, mix in your butternut squash and Parmesan cheese, and then spread it out on a sheet pan to quickly cool to room temperature. Once it's cooled, package it in the plastic container of your choosing and chill in the fridge for no more than 48 hours.
When it's time to serve, spoon the risotto into whatever vessel you originally cooked it in with about 1 cup of chicken stock mixed in to start. You'll reheat it over low heat, adding splashes of stock as needed to loosen it, until hot. Then add salt and pepper as needed until it tastes just right.
If you're out of stove top space, you can also reheat this in the microwave in a microwave-safe bowl, as I've successfully done. Mix 1 cup of chicken stock into the cold risotto, then microwave for three minutes. Check and stir every three minutes, adding splashes of stock each time, until it's hot. In my experience, it usually takes around four microwave cycles.
If you make Ina Garten's saffron risotto with butternut squash this Thanksgiving, I want to hear about it! Shoot me a DM on Instagram with your photos, or tell me what you thought about it in the comments below. If you love it — and I really think you will — I hope you'll join me in thanking the guy who broke my poor lil' heart all those years ago, gave me a hankering for comfort food, and ended up leading me straight toward my signature Thanksgiving side dish forever.
Gotta love life — and gotta love Ina Garten. ❤️