Orzo: What It Is and How to Cook It

The Easy-to-Cook Alternative to Rice (Orzo They Say)

A dish of uncooked tricolor orzo
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Orzo is a rice-shaped pasta that you can cook and serve in much the same way you do rice. That is, you can boil it until the liquid is absorbed, cook it risotto-style, or use the pilaf method.

And, because it is pasta, you can also cook it via the traditional pasta method where you drain away the excess cooking liquid after it is done.

Like other kinds of pasta (and rice), you can serve it hot or cold, as a side dish, and as a component in casseroles, soups, and salads. Orzo usually comes in a basic pale yellow color, but it is also available in a tricolor variety that is commonly used in rotini and other pasta types.

Orzo is not a type of grain. It is a form of pasta, which means it is made from wheat. So if you follow a gluten-free diet, then orzo is not for you.

Cooking Methods

Orzo is a small-sized pasta. As such, the cooking methods for cooking this type of pasta are quite forgiving. But, there are numerous variables to cooking orzo, among them the weight of the lid of your pot and how tightly it fits. A heavier lid will hold in more liquid (i.e. steam) than one that is lighter or looser fitting. Bearing that in mind, take a look at the various methods you can use to cook it.

  • Pasta method: This is the method the package will instruct you to use, and it is the standard cooking method for all pasta—bring salted water to a boil, add the uncooked orzo, simmer for about 10 minutes or until it reaches al dente doneness, then drain the liquid, fluff with butter or olive oil, and serve.
  • Boiled rice method: With this method, the orzo pasta is cooked the same way as rice, namely, the pasta and cold water are combined in a saucepan. Bring the liquid to a boil, then lower the heat, cover, and simmer until all the cooking liquid is absorbed. Note that you can cook other kinds of pasta this way, in particular, long pasta like spaghetti and linguine, as long as you break it up into smaller fragments beforehand.
  • Risotto method: Risotto is made by sautéeing uncooked rice (specifically, a starchy, short-grain type of rice like arborio), in oil, along with some onions and other aromatics, and then cooking it by adding a hot stock, a ladleful at a time, stirring continuously until each ladleful of liquid is completely absorbed before adding the next. Which is exactly how you would prepare orzo using the risotto method. The risotto method coaxes out the starches in the orzo, making it creamy and velvety. In some cooking circles, the result of this cooking method is called "orzotto."
  • Pilaf method: The pilaf method is a combination of the boiled rice method and the risotto method. First you sauté the orzo in a bit of olive oil (or bacon fat) along with some chopped onion, then you add hot stock, cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid, and then transfer the whole thing to a 350 F oven, where it will cook for about 20 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed. A Turkish-style pilaf with orzo uses a combination of rice and orzo cooked by the pilaf method.
  • Baking method: Orzo is a terrific pasta to include in casseroles and other baked dishes. You will need to watch out for recipes that say to cook the orzo according to package instructions, and then later instruct you to bake it for 20 to 25 minutes. If you do that, the orzo will be overcooked. An accurate recipe should give a specific boiling time and baking time, which, when combined, will produce a properly cooked orzo. Otherwise, plan on boiling it for a shorter time than the package instructions, so that it will not overcook during baking. Some recipes like Greek beef stew with orzo will call for uncooked orzo because it cooks through in the oven in the cooking liquid with the other ingredients (much like no-boil lasagna noodles).

Orzo in Salads

Orzo is a wonderful ingredient to use in salads, and it functions equally well as rice or pasta would. Just be sure to rinse it, drain well, toss it in olive oil to keep it from clumping, and chill thoroughly before adding it to your salad.

For example, you could substitute cooked orzo in a chopped vegetable and rice salad or Waldorf rice salad, which is a different take on the classic Waldorf. And orzo would be a fabulous ingredient to add to a traditional Greek salad.