Orzo pasta is a teeny, tiny, tasty treasure. Learning how to cook orzo properly will open up a whole new world of “pasta-bilities” for everything from soups to salads to skillet meals. When you want just a touch of starch to satisfy, Orzo will enhance your recipe without overwhelming proteins and vegetables.
First off, if you’re reading this post from Italy, I am truly sorry if you were hoping for recommendations on how to make orzo, but you meant barley. I’m sure we could spend our days pondering why someone decided to take the Italian word for “barley” and use it to name a pasta shaped like rice, but that person is long dead and we’ve got lives full of pasta ahead of us.
Now, I’ve had plenty of orzo (the pasta) in my life, but it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite ways to experiment in the kitchen. Orzo salad edged out potato salad for all my potluck needs this summer, and I definitely sipped a few bowls of lemon orzo soup last week when my kids brought home a super-cold from school.
Orzo is a funny pasta, and in this case funny means flexible. It can be cooked like pasta (because it is pasta), but it can also be treated like rice. Lemon orzo is cooked like a risotto (and well worth the effort). If you’re looking for a simpler take, parmesan orzo with sautéed veggies is a lunchtime hero, especially since it only takes 20 minutes start to finish.
But even I know I don’t know all there is to know about how to cook orzo. So, whether you love it or have never tried it, we’re going explore how to cook with orzo, because it is an oft overlooked li’l treat that even I don’t work with enough. I’m definitely going to go down a rabbit hole, so if you want to come along, we better master the basics first.
What is Orzo?
Orzo is one of several small micro pastas that fall into the category of “pastina.” Its better known in Italy as risoni because of its shape – just like a grain of rice. But don’t let that fool you. When it comes to how you cook orzo, it’s far closer to spaghetti than it is to risotto.
Be aware that if you’re looking for instructions on how to cook orzo for a particular recipe and it is instead telling you how to cook risoni, those instructions will be one and the same. Six of one, half dozen of the other. Tomato, tomahto.
How to Serve Orzo Pasta?
Orzo functions just like any other pasta, but it’s even more versatile. If you think of it as a mash-up between rice and pasta, and you could make any of the following recipes with orzo.
Add it to soups for a starchy component. Swap the cauliflower rice in our Grain-Free Avgolemono Soup (thus rendering it not grain-free) or try it with Creamy Chicken Meatball Soup. Orzo can be added directly to soup if you’d like the leeched start to help thicken the broth. If you’re like more control over the finished texture, it’s best to cook it separately to one minute below al dente and add the desired amount to cooked soup.
Orzo is a great substitute for rice and other starches as a base for skillet meals and bakes. Use it in place of rice for Italian-style dishes like Italian Sausage and Peppers, Healthy Tuscan Chicken, or Garlic Butter Lemon Shrimp.
Orzo makes for a fun pasta salad. There are plenty of ways to make our Mediterranean Orzo Salad all your own, or simply swap orzo for the main pasta in your favorite pasta salad. We love using it in a caprese pasta salad.
Season simply and serve orzo as a side dish. (See recipe below.)
How Long to Cook Orzo Pasta?
How you’re using this pasta determines how long to boil orzo.
- For cold recipes (like orzo salad) you want to cook to al dente – meaning the pasta is fully cooked through, but retains a bit of a firm bite – or a bit beyond al dente (1-2 minutes) depending on your preference for firmness in the pasta salad. The time to cook orzo al dente is typically 7 minutes.
- If you’re cooking orzo to fold into a more classic pasta dish, where the pasta will finish cooking IN the sauce, you’ll want to drain it 1-2 minutes before it hits the al dente mark, so closer to 5 minutes. The pasta will then finish cooking IN the sauce.
Bear in mind, these times apply when you cook orzo on the stove, not if you want to make orzo in an instant pot. We recommend stovetop cooking because orzo’s size makes it susceptible to clumping, and therefore requires frequent stirring.
How to Cook Orzo Pasta
The biggest trick to learning how to cook Orzo Pasta is knowing when to stop. Cook these tiny pastina to al dente if enjoying as a side or in a salad, or stop a couple minutes short when finishing in a soup or sauce. Orzo is a welcome addition to lots of dishes, but also perfectly delicious when simply seasoned with salt, pepper, and butter.
- Bring water to a boil in a medium pot. Once boiling, season with salt.
- Add the orzo and stir well.
- Boil for 7 minutes (to al dente according to package direction), stirring frequently – due to its small size, orzo tends to clump.
- At 7 minutes, taste for texture. Cook another minute if needed.
- Drain the pasta, then return to the hot pot. Add butter and ground pepper and stir well to melt the butter. Enjoy!
- Properly season the cooking water with salt – it should taste like the sea! This will infuse the orzo with flavor from the inside out.
- Stir frequently. Orzo tends to stick and clump, so be attentive and stir every few minutes
- Cook times can be unpredictable – start tasting for texture at the 7 minute mark, then every minute thereafter. Orzo can be enjoyed al dente (with a bite) or soft, depending on who’s enjoying it and how you’re serving it.
- Wondering how much orzo per person? A serving is about ⅓ c uncooked, as long as the pasta is the “main” component. Plan on ¼ cup orzo per person if adding to a soup or making a pasta salad with lots of mix-ins. You can easily scale up or down whether you want to cook orzo for 2 or 20.
- When using orzo pasta in a cold salad recipe, rinse under cool running water to stop the orzo cooking before mixing with other ingredients. Drain well before using.
Should Orzo be Rinsed Before Cooking?
No, orzo doesn’t need to be rinsed before cooking, just like any other pasta shape.
Is Orzo Healthier Than Pasta?
Orzo IS pasta, so it all depends on how you use it. One reason I’ve become so fond of orzo is because you don’t need a lot of it. It’s easy to bulk up a bit of orzo with vegetables for a satisfying meal, and it’s a perfect starchy partner for almost every meat, vegetable, soup and sauce.
Is Orzo Healthier Than Rice?
Healthier? Well, that depends on your definition. Rice is gluten-free, orzo is not. On the other hand, I find rice fills me up way faster and leaves me with a heavier feeling after.
One of the reasons I like orzo is that a little goes a long way – you don’t have to use as much orzo as you would rice to “carb load” your favorite dishes.
Is Orzo Gluten-Free?
Orzo pasta might be shaped to mimic the appearance of rice, but it is not gluten free. Even when it’s referred to as “risoni,” it should not be confused with risotto. Unless otherwise specified on the packaging, it’s made with wheat or semolina flour, which contains gluten.
While gluten free pasta has become readily available, gluten free orzo might be trickier to find, so do your research first. I’ve used, and enjoyed, DeLallo’s gluten-free orzo (their whole wheat orzo is fantastic too).
How to Store Cooked Orzo?
Cooked orzo can be stored the same way you would other pasta (or pasta salad dishes) – in a sealed, airtight container in the fridge.
If using orzo in a brothy soup, know that it will continue to absorb liquid during storage. You’ll want to add additional broth to leftovers.
For all leftover pasta, including orzo, I like to reserve some of the pasta water and use it when reheating to help the sauces reconstitute better; add about a tablespoon per serving.
Do you love orzo? I’d love to know how you use it! Leave a comment and a rating below.
How to Cook OrzoPrint Recipe Rate this Recipe Pin Recipe
- Medium Sauce Pot
- 1.5 c orzo pasta
- 4 c water
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- 1-2 tablespoons butter
- Ground pepper, to taste
- Bring the water to a boil in a medium (size) saucepot. Once boiling, season with kosher salt.
- Add the orzo and stir well. Boil for 7 minutes (to al dente according to package direction), then taste for texture.
- Drain the pasta, then return to the hot pot. Add the butter and ground pepper and stir well to melt the butter. Taste for seasoning and adjust the salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy!
- Season the water well – it should taste like the seas
- Stir frequently – orzo tends to stick and clump, so be attentive and stir every few minutes
- Cook times can be unpredictable – start tasting for texture at the 7 minute mark, then every minute thereafter. Orzo can be enjoyed al dente (with a bite) or soft, depending on who’s enjoying it and how you’re serving it. For pasta salad, we like it a bit softer and go 1-2 minutes past al dente. If adding to soup or making a pasta dish like orzo with tomatoes and zucchini, go 1-2 minutes under, as the pasta will continue to cook in the sauce.
- A serving of orzo is about ⅓ c uncooked, as long as the pasta is the “main” component. Plan on ¼ cup per person if adding to a soup or making a pasta salad with lots of mix-ins.
- If using for a cold salad, rinse under cool running water to stop the cooking