When making risotto one of the first steps is to saute the rice in some oil for a few minutes (or until the rice is translucent).
What is happening when the rice is fried? What effect does this have, and what would happen if this step was omitted?
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As I understand it, it's down to the flavour you get from frying the rice. However, it does also break down some of the starch which reduces the thickening it can do when the risotto cooks, which might cause a problem. I can attest to the flavour, but I've not done experiments about thickening.
Serious Eats had a good article on the topic though, in which such experiments were described. The solution in that was to wash the rice in the stock, then fry the rice, then add the stock containing all that undamaged free rice starch during cooking, thus giving you toasty flavour and creamy risotto with no questions asked. I haven't tried that, but it seems like a fairly sound idea to me.
Many rice recipes include this step- it seems to be standard with Indian rice recipes as well.
Frying the rice definitely adds a nutty, toasted, flavor. It would be unfortunate to give that up just for convenience.
I have been told that frying the rice produces more individualized grains of rice in the finished product. This makes sense to me as some of the starch would gelatinize and preserve the grain's shape. Obviously for risotto you want plenty of free starch to thicken the sauce but you don't want to end up with rice pudding.
I have not done any independent experiments to see if this is the case and it does sound like it could be an old wives tale (simmering pasta or searing steak, etc.)
The purpose is to add flavour and to coat the grains with oil which will give you better texture in your finished dish. The slow stove top method with constant stirring is what gives you the best cream factor as the stirring helps to release the starches.