What's Orzo and How Do I Cook It?

Here's what to know about this petite pasta.

Orzo is a thin, oval, rice-shaped pasta. In Italy, orzo is classified as pastina or "little pasta," which is a category of very small pastas. Orzo is typically used in soups in Italian cuisine, but you can use it in any number of pasta dishes, soups, grain bowls, and other places where a petite, toothsome pasta can come in handy.

What Is Orzo Made From?

Orzo is made from semolina, a coarser, often golden color flour that comes from durum wheat and has a high gluten content. But don't be confused — orzo isn't a whole grain, although you can purchase a whole-wheat version.

Are There Other Names for Orzo?

In Italy, this pastina ("little pasta") often goes by the name of risi (which actually means rice) or rosini, not orzo, which means barley in Italian. The name in the United States was likely inspired by its resemblance to that grain.

To further the confusion, if you look for the name "orzo" in Italy, you'll often find it applied to "caffè d'orzo," a grain beverage common on many café menus.

In Greece, orzo is known as kritharaki.

How to Cook Orzo

The easiest way to prepare orzo is to heat a pot of salted water and add the pasta once the water begins to boil. Cook until the pasta reaches al dente, approximately 8 to 10 minutes or as the package indicates. Drain the water as you would any other type of pasta, and if you like, add some flavor by tossing in some melted butter or olive oil before serving with your favorite sauce.

If you plan to add the orzo to salads, it's best to drizzle the pasta with olive oil and fluff it while it's still hot to avoid clumping, then cool and refrigerate it. It makes an excellent pasta salad.

Orzo can also be cooked like rice with a two-to-one ratio of water to dried pasta; the result will be creamier since all the starch of the pasta will be retained, not poured off with the cooking water. The best part? Your cooking time will be about half of what it takes to make a pot of white rice. So if you're crunched for time, consider a side dish of orzo. You can also jazz up your rice dishes using orzo to create a pilaf.

How to Use Orzo in Recipes

Orzo is a fun, versatile pasta that can be added to salads, served as a side dish, or even prepared as a fake risotto. You can serve it cold in a salad or as a hot dish, whatever you prefer. And for reference, one cup of dried orzo yields about two cups cooked.

For an impressive dish, this small pasta can be used to make a pseudo version of risotto. Classic risotto requires a specific type of rice — arborio — as well as plenty of patience and continual stirring to get the texture just right. Orzo can be more forgiving and takes less time to cook, and the starch from the pasta will give the dish a nice creamy texture. You can prepare everything as you would for a typical risotto recipe, and after adding in the mock rice and some broth you can simmer it, uncovered, adding more broth and stirring occasionally until the orzo is just barely tender. Finish the dish as you would a rice-based risotto.

Get the Recipe: Delicious and Easy Mock Risotto

If you add orzo to soups, it's best to add this pasta near the end so it doesn't become overcooked or mushy. As an alternative, cook it separately and ladle it in when dishing up the soup.

What's a Good Substitute for Orzo?

If you have a recipe that calls for orzo but you don't have any on hand, some quick-cooking pasta alternatives include ditalini, pastina, or the petite star-shaped stelline. You can also use rice in its place; just account for the difference in cooking times, or use boil-in-bag rice for a faster-cooking alternative that will most closely resemble orzo. You can also substitute pearl couscous (sometimes called Israeli couscous), small balls of toasted pasta that cook in about 10 minutes.


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