Orzo, which is basically Italian for barley, is small pasta resembling rice. When it comes to pasta categories, orzo belongs to pastina – tiny shaped pasta, usually used in soups.
Orzo is very common in traditional Italian cuisine, and a common ingredient in soups, broths, pasta salads, and many side dishes.
If you haven’t been able to find this teeny tiny pasta, but you still want something similar in your dish, we’ve got a few ideas. Keep on reading to find the best orzo substitute for your recipe!
The best substitutes for orzo
Besides Italian cuisine, orzo is also very popular in Greek dishes, except that there it is known as krithiraki. Usually, orzo pasta is made with semolina flour, which is actually durum wheat. Even though it is made from whole-wheat flour, and it is very similar to rice, orzo is not whole wheat itself.
Of course, different brands will offer different orzo varieties, quality, and ingredients. When shopping for your orzo pasta, you want to look for higher protein content in the semolina flour they’re using.
Also, you’ll find that quality orzo doesn’t turn all mushy when cooked, which is something that happens with cheaper options.
Besides the differences in flour and overall quality, orzo is also available in different colors – depending on whether some vegetables have been added.
For instance, there’s a black orzo with squid ink, a reddish-orange orzo from tomato, and a green orzo from spinach. Despite the varieties, you’ll notice that these vegetable additions don’t change the flavor as much.
When it comes to orzo cooking time, 8 to 10 minutes is enough for it to cook al dente. You can cook it just like you would any pasta, and keep in mind that 1 cup raw orzo yields about 2 cups cooked.
In case you’re cooking orzo in a soup, add it near the end of cooking and make sure you don’t overcook it.
Check out the list below to discover the most adequate orzo alternative for your recipe!
Arborio is short Italian rice, a variety of superfino rice, and it has a high content of amylopectin starch which will give your dishes an extremely creamy consistency.
The arborio grains are oval, usually white, and they’re about a quarter of an inch long. You can also find brown arborio rice, which is the unrefined version, but it isn’t as common as the white, starchier variant.
Due to its creamy texture, arborio is ideal in risotto, rice pudding, and other desserts that require more starch. If you’re using arborio as a substitute for orzo in soup, make sure not to add too much, since it will thicken the liquid.
Fregola, also known as Sardinian couscous, is somewhere between pasta and grain – which makes it an ideal substitute for orzo.
It is important to note that fregola is handmade, and just like orzo, it is made from semolina flour. If you’re wondering where does that unique toasty, nutty flavor of fregola comes from, it is usually pre-toasted.
Fregola is extremely versatile, and it goes well with a number of pasta and rice dishes. You can use it in pasta salads, risotto, pilaf, baked in a casserole dish, or as a side dish mixed with veggies such as zucchini.
Couscous is basically crushed durum wheat semolina, usually resembling spheres or small granules. While the smaller type of couscous is usually more coarse, bigger varieties tend to have a more chewy consistency.
When cooked, couscous typically develops a unique golden color, and it has a slightly nutty flavor – yet neutral enough to be served as a side dish along with numerous foods.
There are many couscous variants available, and each of them has something unique to offer.
Moroccan couscous is the smallest couscous you will find, and it is the most popular option. Israeli couscous, also known as pearl couscous, is much larger, providing more texture, while Lebanese couscous is the size of a pea.
If you’re on a quest for a healthy substitute for orzo – look no further. Quinoa has gained a lot of popularity when it comes to balanced nutrition since it is not only a whole-grain carbohydrate but also a whole protein.
However, it is not a whole grain, since it isn’t a grain at all – quinoa is actually pseudo-cereal and a seed prepared like a grain.
This gluten-free substitute for orzo is not only extremely beneficial for the body but also delicious and quite versatile when it comes to cooking. Add it to your smoked tofu salad, dolmades, spring rolls, stuffed peppers, or a side dish with seafood, fish, as well as grilled meat and veggies.
5. Short-grain brown rice
Since they have a similar appearance and can be prepared and served the same way, you can easily use short-grain brown rice in place of orzo.
What’s the difference between short-grain rice on one side, and medium and long-grain rice on the other? Aside from the size, short-grain brown rice tends to be more sticky, soft, and tender, which makes it ideal for sushi and pudding.
You’ll also notice that short-grain brown rice is a bit starchier than the other variants, and it is used in both savory and sweet dishes due to its specific texture.
6. Acini di pepe
Just like orzo, acini di pepe is a small kind of pasta, even though many people confuse it for grain. The term acini di pepe translates to a peppercorn (seed of pepper), but in fact, this pasta is even smaller than peppercorn – it actually resembles couscous in size.
This tiny pasta goes well with all kinds of soups, and in Italy, it is a staple in their so-called Italian wedding soup.
Acini di pepe is also made from semolina flour, and it has a rather neutral taste that easily blends with other flavors and aromas. Serve it in your pasta dishes, pasta salads, soups, or as a side dish with a combination of aromatic spices and your favorite veggies.
7. Pearl barley
Pearl barley has a pretty neutral flavor profile, which allows it to absorb all the flavors from the food it’s cooked in, and transform completely. This kind of versatility and mild flavor makes it a perfect addition to your stocks and soups.
Pearl barley is actually the result of a polishing process, where the outer bran is removed to give the barley this pearl-like appearance.
Keep in mind that this orzo substitute takes a bit longer to cook, but you can speed up the process by using a pressure cooker. Aside from being used in stocks and soups, pearl barley is a great alternative for white rice in risotto, and can also be used to thicken any stew.
8. Cauliflower rice
Cauliflower rice isn’t another rice variant, but a rice look-alike you can get from cauliflower. It is a starch-free rice alternative with a better, more beneficial nutritional profile.
Whether you’re on keto, or you’re just looking for healthier options, cauliflower rice can be a refreshing addition to your cooking.
To make your cauliflower rice, you can use a box grater with larger holes, or a food processor with the grater blade. The end result should resemble little grains of rice, so take your time with the processor if you don’t want your cauliflower to turn into mush.
9. Ditalini pasta
The name ditalini translates to “little thimbles”, and this pasta is usually made in a smooth tube, but it can also have ridges.
It is commonly used in soups and pasta salads, but you can use it in any pasta dish if you prefer small pasta. Ditalini pasta is the number one choice in a popular Italian dish pasta e fagioli, which means pasta and beans.
Since it is often found in salads, ditalini pasta is also referred to as salad macaroni, or tubettini – since it resembles small tubes. If you want small pasta, but still something a bit bigger than orzo, you can’t go wrong with ditalini.
Farro is a whole grain that has been around for centuries, and as a substitute for orzo it is packed with nutrients. It is most common in Mediterranean cuisine, and it shares with barley a slightly nutty flavor and a chewy texture.
Keep in mind that farro contains gluten, so you should avoid it if you have gluten sensitivity or intolerance.
Farro is an ideal choice for your soups, sides, and salads, and it pairs particularly well with seafood and fish such as tuna. You can find it both with and without the bran, but keep in mind that the whole farro requires more cooking time.
This orzo alternative is yet another small-shaped pasta many would mistake for rice due to its shape and size. While it is typically added to soups, you should also try this rice-like pasta in your salads and side dishes.
Risoni is usually a mix of durum flour, semolina, and water, and it is extremely small, oval-shaped, and creamy colored.
Miniature pasta such as risoni can add more texture to your dishes, without being too overbearing. It pairs perfectly with all kinds of vegetables and sauces, and due to its size, it won’t soak up all the liquid and leave your dish dry and sticky.
How to choose an orzo substitute
Choosing the most adequate orzo substitute can be challenging – especially if you’re not quite specific about what you’re looking for.
For instance, almost all of the mentioned options can work well as an orzo substitute in soups, but there are some significant differences in their shape, flavor, and the way they combine with dishes when cooked.
If you’re looking strictly for pasta recipes, you can’t go wrong with acini di pepe, ditalini, and risoni. These small-shaped kinds of pasta are extremely delicious, neutral in flavor, and ideal for your soups, stocks, side dishes, and pasta salads.
Many grains can replace orzo, even though orzo isn’t a grain itself. Couscous, pearl barley, and farro are nutrient-packed and usually a bit chewy – so they’re great for adding a bit more texture to your food.
Arborio and short-grain brown rice are very starchy, so go for these rice options if you want a creamier texture in risotto and sides.
Quinoa, fregola, and cauliflower rice are unique options that don’t fully belong to either of the mentioned categories, but each of them offers an opportunity to experiment and take your dish to the next level.
Passionate chef, in love with everything related to food and cooking it to perfection!