Orzo is a rice-shaped pasta that can be traditionally prepared as pasta or cooked and served in much the same way as rice. It is enjoyed hot or cold and is commonly a part of soups and salads. Orzo is made from wheat semolina flour and translates to "barley" in Italian, referencing its similar appearance to the grain when unprocessed.
Category: Soup pasta
Cook Time: 8 to 10 minutes
Main Ingredient: Semolina flour
Substitutes: Rice, pastina, risi
What Is Orzo?
Although it looks like a type of grain, orzo is a form of pasta made from durum wheat. This small pasta is categorized as "pastina," which means "little pasta"; these tiny pasta shapes are often used in soup in Italian cuisine. Orzo is also frequently combined with rice when making rice pilaf. It is a popular ingredient throughout Europe, particularly Greece where it is called krithiraki.
Orzo is readily available dried and is priced similarly to other common, small pasta shapes. It can be cooked in several ways and is a wonderful ingredient to use in salads. Just be sure to rinse it, drain well, and toss it in olive oil to keep it from clumping. Chilling thoroughly before adding to a salad is best.
How to Cook Orzo
Since it is a small-sized pasta, the cooking methods for cooking orzo are quite forgiving. They are also quite varied, offering many different preparation techniques.
Orzo can be cooked following the standard cooking method for all pasta: Bring salted water to a boil, add the uncooked orzo, and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes (or until it reaches al dente doneness). Drain the liquid, add butter or olive oil, and fluff and serve. Alternatively, orzo can be prepared in the same way as rice. This means the pasta is combined with cold water in a saucepan and brought to a boil. The heat is then lowered, the pot is covered, and the mixture is simmered until all the cooking liquid is absorbed.
The pilaf method combines the technique of boiling rice with making risotto. First, the orzo is sauteed in a bit of olive oil (or bacon fat) along with some chopped onion; then hot stock is added and the pot is covered. It is transferred to a 350 F oven where it cooks for about 20 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed.
Although risotto is traditionally made with a starchy, short-grain type of rice like arborio, it can also be prepared with orzo (in some cooking circles, it is called "orzotto"). The risotto method coaxes out the starches in the orzo, making it creamy and velvety. Orzo is also a terrific pasta to include in casseroles and other baked dishes. Most of the time the pasta needs to be boiled (for a shorter cooking time than instructed on the package) before being baked, but there some recipes like Greek beef stew with orzo that call for uncooked orzo as it cooks through in the oven in the cooking liquid with the other ingredients.
The most common version of orzo is a basic pale yellow color, but there are other types available, though some may be harder to find. A tricolor variety includes plain (yellow-white), sundried tomato (red), and spinach (green), and some brands feature whole wheat, organic, and gluten-free (made with corn and rice).
The best replacement for orzo is a short-grained rice such as arborio. Both have a similar shape and texture and will become creamy when cooked in the same way. For cold salads, other types of rice will do, and if planning to add orzo to a soup, pasta such as pastina, tubettini, and acini di pepe are all good alternatives. A "soup pasta" that closely resembles orzo is one called risi, but it may be difficult to find.
Like other kinds of pasta (and rice), orzo can be served hot or cold, as part of a main dish or as a side dish, and as a component in casseroles, soups, and salads. Orzo can also be substituted in rice salad recipes such as in a chopped vegetable and rice salad.