Skip to Content

6 Best Substitutes for Orzo | Wisdom from Half a Century

Several types of dry grains and beans in containers in a pantry

When I started cooking more than five decades ago, ingredients were less readily available than they are today. You had to be inventive if a recipe called for a specific ingredient that was not on hand or in the local store. What happens when you can’t find orzo or want to experiment a bit?

The best substitutes for orzo include rice for familiarity, couscous for quickness, quinoa for health benefits, barley for heartiness, fregola for depth of flavor, and acini di pepe for texture. Be sure to adjust cooking times and liquids for each substitute appropriately.

Below, I’ve summarized my 50 years of kitchen experience to share the best substitutes for orzo, ensuring that your dishes maintain their character and charm.

1. Rice – The Familiar Choice

Given Orzo’s resemblance to rice, it’s a no-brainer that rice would be the first substitute on this list. Go for long-grain rice, such as Basmati or Jasmine, to achieve a texture and appearance closest to orzo. They deliver a slightly aromatic fragrance and, when cooked, can mimic the al dente feel of orzo.

However, remember that rice doesn’t have the glutinous makeup of pasta, so the overall mouthfeel will be different.

2. Couscous- The Quick Fix

Couscous, a staple in North African cuisine, is small granules of semolina wheat. Its size and shape can be comparable to orzo, making it a good substitute in salads and stews. Plus, it cooks rapidly – in about 5 minutes – making it an efficient choice for those in a hurry.

3. Quinoa- The Nutritional Powerhouse

For those looking for a healthier alternative, quinoa is the answer. This grain is packed with protein, fiber, and essential amino acids. Its texture is a tad more crunchy, and its taste is slightly nuttier, but in a dish rich with flavors, it can seamlessly replace orzo. Plus, it’s gluten-free!

4. Barley- The Hearty Alternative

Barley flakes on a wooden spoon

Barley has a slightly chewier texture compared to orzo and a nutty undertone. Its larger size gives a heartier feel to soups and stews. Rich in fiber, barley is excellent for those wanting a fulfilling and healthy ingredient as a substitute.

5. Fregola (or Fregula)- The Sardinian Cousin

A type of pasta from Sardinia, fregola consists of small balls of semolina dough that have been toasted. Its size is a bit larger than orzo, but its toasted nature gives a unique depth of flavor. It’s perfect for dishes where you want that extra bit of character.

6. Acini di pepe- The Miniature Marvel

This is a tiny, bead-like pasta often used in traditional Italian soups. While smaller than orzo, acini di pepe provides a similar texture. It’s a wonderful choice for broths or salads where you desire a hint of pasta texture without overpowering the dish.

A Note on Cooking Times and Liquids

While all these substitutes are wonderful in their own right, it’s vital to remember that each will have its own cooking time and liquid requirements. For instance, while orzo might take 9-10 minutes to reach al dente, quinoa might require 15-20 minutes. It’s essential to adjust your recipes accordingly, both in terms of cooking time and the amount of broth or water.

Final Bite

Over the years, I’ve discovered that some of the best dishes come from the freedom of improvisation. One such ingredient that often raised eyebrows in earlier days was orzo. A delightful rice-shaped pasta that my mother-in-law introduced me to, orzo has its roots in Italian cuisine, although its shape often confuses it with grains.

In my 50 years of cooking, I’ve learned that while ingredients are essential, the spirit of experimentation and the joy of cooking genuinely make a dish special. Whether you’re substituting orzo out of necessity or curiosity, know that each alternative brings its unique charm. Embrace the change, enjoy the process, and remember – love is the best ingredient you can add to any dish.

For more, check out The 10 Best Substitutes for Quick Oats in a Recipe.