When it comes to cooking, it’s always handy to have a list of substitutions for common ingredients just in case you forget to pick it up at the store, you’re allergic to it, or if you just want to try something different.
When it comes to orzo, this tasty little pasta is used in tons of delicious recipes that range from soups to cold salads to pilafs and other side dishes. But what if you don’t have any on hand? That’s where these substitutions come in.
So, what are the 9 best substitutes for orzo? The best substitutes for orzo are Acini Di Pepe, tubettini, small orechiette, arborio rice, pearl barley, fregola or couscous, short grain brown rice, quinoa, or millet depending on the context and whether they need to be gluten-free.
Let’s take a deep dive into some of the best substitutes out there for orzo!
What Is Orzo?
While it may look like a grain, orzo is actually a type of pasta made from semolina (Durham wheat) flour.
When you look at this pasta, it looks like grains of rice or barley. In fact the word “orzo” actually means barley in Italian.
Orzo is actually classified as a pastina, which is a category of small kinds of pasta that are often used in soups and stews.
It is also a great pasta to use in salads, pilafs, and side dishes because, once cooked, it has a great texture that complements sauces and veggies really well.
It has a somewhat toothy and firm texture and a subtle flavor that makes it an incredibly versatile pasta to keep in your pantry.
Different varieties of orzo can be colored with things like squid ink (which will make it black), tomatoes (for an orange hue), or spinach (for a light green color).
Even when these kinds of pasta are colored with different foods, it doesn’t change the flavor too much, so you can use them interchangeably, generally speaking.
When shopping for orzo, try to find a good quality brand that is high in protein so that the pasta holds its shape once cooked.
Is Orzo Gluten-Free?
While orzo may look like grains of rice, since it is made with semolina, or Durham wheat, this pasta is not a gluten-free option.
If you have celiac disease, gluten intolerance, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or avoid gluten for other reasons, then orzo should not make its way to your plate.
Below, I have included several gluten-free options that you can use in place of orzo in your cooking. While the textures and flavors won’t be an exact match, they can be quite close and offer a great substitution for gluten-filled pastas.
I’ll go into more detail below, but some good gluten-free substitutions for Orzo include:
- Arborio Rice
- Short Grain Brown Rice
Depending on how orzo is used in your recipe, there is sure to be a gluten-free substitution that will work for you.
How Are You Going To Use The Orzo Substitute?
When you’re deciding what to replace your orzo pasta with, it is important to figure out how it is being used in your recipe. Certain substitutions are going to work better in specific applications than others will.
Some will be great to use in soups, but wouldn’t make a good pilaf. Others will make a perfect salad or side dish, but will completely fall apart if you try to use them in a soup.
That’s why it’s important to figure out how you want to use your substitute so you can pick the best ones for your needs.
The Top 9 Best Substitutes For Orzo
Once you have figured out how you plan to use the orzo substitute, you can take a look at the list of options below to find the one that is going to best serve your needs.
I have included a range of pastas, grains, and gluten-free options to help you find the best orzo substitute.
1. Acini Di Pepe Pasta
This little pasta is absolutely adorable and makes a great substitution if you’re looking for something to use in a soup.
Acini Di Pepe Pasta is a small, round pasta (slightly smaller than orzo) and means “seeds of pepper” in Italian because they look like little peppercorns!
They are made from semolina flour, so, unfortunately, they are not a good gluten-free choice.
Like orzo, they are a pastina, or tiny pasta, that is often used in soups. The individual pieces usually resemble tiny cylinders which are about 1mm or smaller.
Other great uses for this teeny pasta is in a cold salad or side dish. The structure holds up well, and they have a bit of firmness in their texture, making them perfect to use for soups or sides.
This pasta absorbs flavor really well, so you can cook it in broth or in water that has been seasoned with salt, herbs, wine/vermouth, and spices to take your flavor game to the next level.
If you want to cook your pasta properly follow these steps:
- Bring a pot of water or broth to a boil.
- Add the Acini Di Pepe pasta and stir.
- For al dente use in salads and side dishes, cook for 6 minutes. For a softer texture, cook for 8 minutes.
- Strain, rinse with cold water, and enjoy!
2. Tubettini Pasta
Another wee little pasta that you can use in place of orzo is Tubettini. As the name suggests, it is shaped like a tiny little tube and is made from semolina flour, so like orzo and Acini Di Pepe, they are not gluten-free.
Generally, this pasta is used in soups, stews, or even a classic macaroni salad. You may have seen this pasta show up in Minestrone soup.
It can come smooth or with ridges to help the sauce stick to it. It has a nice texture and the little tube shape is great for absorbing flavor.
To cook your Tubettini pasta for a salad or side dish, follow these instructions:
- Place a medium saucepan on the stove and fill with water, salt, and any herbs or spices you want to use for flavor.
- Put the lid on the pot and bring it to a boil.
- Once boiling, pour in your pasta and give it a stir.
- For al dente pasta, cook for 9 minutes.
- For soft pasta, cook for 11 minutes.
- Once cooked to your preference, strain, rinse, and serve. Remember if you are serving it warm with a pasta sauce that you shouldn’t rinse it. The starch from the pasta helps the sauce stick.
3. Small Orecchiette Pasta
These little pastas get their name from their shape, which looks like “little ears”.
Like the other pastas on this list, it is made from semolina (Durham wheat) flour, so it isn’t a gluten-free choice. The small size of pasta can be a little difficult to find outside of Italian specialty food stores.
However, if you can find this pasta, it is amazing to use in soups as a substitute for orzo. If you are using it in a soup, you will want to add it in the last 8-10 minutes of simmering time so that it maintains its texture.
4. Arborio Rice
Arborio rice is a short-grain rice that is commonly used in one of my favorite dishes, risotto, but it also makes an excellent substitution for orzo thanks to its shape and starch content.
It isn’t milled as much as other types of rice, which is how it maintains a higher level of starchiness.
This rice is gluten-free and can be used in soups or side dishes depending on what the recipe calls for.
It is super versatile and while it won’t have the exact same texture as orzo, it comes pretty close. The texture is firm, chewy, and slightly creamy thanks to the starch content.
This grain is short, fat, with an oval shape and a pearly white color.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this rice if you are looking for something to use in a salad or cold dish, since the starch makes it quite creamy as opposed to the distinct grains you want for a salad.
If you’re looking for a great orzo substitution to use in soups, arborio rice should be high on your list.
5. Pearl Barley
While pearl barley is an individual grain as opposed to a processed pasta, it is not a gluten-free choice so keep that in mind. With that being said, pearl barley is a wonderful substitution for orzo in soups, stews, cold salads, and side dishes.
It has had the outer fibrous hull removed, so while it still has a chewy texture, it’s not quite as tough to cook as hulled barley.
To fully cook pearl barley takes about 40 minutes, so keep that in mind if you want to use it in a soup. The flavor is subtly nutty.
If you want to use it as a substitute in salads or side dishes, you can cook it in broth or seasoned water to add another layer of flavor to your dish, since it absorbs flavor really well.
6. Fregola Or Couscous
While you might think that couscous is a grain, thanks to its small, round shape it is actually a tiny pasta.
You are likely familiar with couscous, the delicious pasta made from semolina flour and used in many North African and Mediterranean recipes.
Fregola is similar in that it is a small round pasta made from semolina, except this variety is made by hand.
Both of these choices can be used in a wide variety of applications from soups to stews to cold salads, pilafs, and side dishes.
Couscous in particular is incredible easy to cook. Just follow these directions:
- Bring 1 and 3/4 cups of broth (or water), 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, a tablespoon of olive oil, and a tablespoon of butter to boil in a medium saucepan.
- Once boiling, stir in the couscous, cover with a lid, remove from the heat, and let steam for 5 minutes.
- When steamed, fluff with a fork and serve.
You can also season your water/broth with herbs and spices for an extra special flavor.
7. Short Grain Brown Rice
This gluten-free option is great for people who enjoy rice, but don’t want one that is quite as starchy as arborio rice. You can use short grain brown rice in place of orzo in virtually any application from a soup to a salad to a pilaf.
If you are using it in a soup, I will often recommend cooking the rice separately until it is al dente and then stirring it into the soup for the last few minutes of cooking time.
Otherwise, I find the starch that gets released can make the soup really gloopy.
Short grain brown rice has a subtle nutty flavor and a nice firm texture that absorbs flavors well and is a great vehicle for sauces and herbs.
I love using quinoa as an orzo substitute in salads and side dishes. It is a gluten-free grain from the Andean region of South America.
I personally don’t love using it in soups because I find it absorbs a lot of water and can get quite mushy. Other people really enjoy that texture though, so it is up to your preference.
When I cook it for use in side dishes, pilafs, and salads I like to follow this method:
- Add 1 and 3/4 cups of broth, 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and 1 cup of quinoa to a saucepan.
- Place the saucepan over medium heat and cover with a lid.
- Bring the water to boil and then turn down to a low simmer for 15 minutes, keeping the lid on the pot.
- After 15 minutes, remove the lid, fluff with a fork, and recover. Let sit another 5 minutes and serve.
This unconventional little seed functions a lot like a grain and is a perfect to use as a substitute for orzo in salads and side dishes. Traditionally, this seed was grown in India, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Northern China.
If you want to use it in a soup, I recommend cooking it separately and adding it in just before you serve the soup to prevent it from getting mushy and clumpy.
It has a mild flavor that is kind of similar to corn and a softer texture than some other substitutes on this list.
To cook your perfect millet, follow these steps:
- Add one cup of millet seeds to a saucepan over medium heat and toast for 3-5 minutes, until they turn golden brown and fragrant.
- Add 2 cups of water and 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt to the pan (it will bubble and splutter a bit since it is already hot) and stir to combine.
- Increase the temperature to high heat and bring the contents of the pot to boil.
- Once boiling, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil or butter, stir, and cover. Decrease the heat to low and let simmer for about 15 minutes.
- After 15 minutes, remove from the heat and let stand 10 minutes, still covered.
- Once fully cooked, fluff with a fork and enjoy.