Orzo is pasta made from durum wheat that looks a lot like rice. It is a popular ingredient in Italian cuisine, perfect added to hearty soups or used cold in a salad. If you can’t get your hands on any, or dietary restrictions stop you from eating it, then you’re going to need a substitute for orzo. There are plenty of alternatives and you’re about to learn seven options to help get that recipe finished.
7 recommended orzo substitutes
Orzo is a type of “pastina” which means “little pasta” in English. You’ll notice that the replacements we’ve chosen are mostly quite small, perfect for bulking up soupy meals. The ingredients on this list are all happy to let the other ingredients take center stage, as opposed to a pasta like spaghetti or farfalle which are the focus of the dish.
1. Arborio rice
Arborio rice is well known for its role in risotto. Once cooked, this short-grain rice turns deliciously creamy, lending itself to all any recipe that calls for orzo. Cold salads, stews, and soups all benefit from the addition of arborio rice.
Arborio rice will help you shave a few carbohydrates off your daily intake. One cup of arborio rice contains 52g or carbs, orzo contains 64g.
2. Acini de pepe
Acini de pepe is a type of pasta made from semolina and is translated to mean “seeds of pepper”. This is a reference to the size of the pasta, which is very small and round. It is this shape that makes it an excellent replacement for orzo. Toss it into a soup or stew towards the end of cooking and it’ll be al dente within a few minutes.
Acini de pepe can be boiled in water until tender, then strained, and combined with your favorite pasta sauce. Alternatively, allow the strained pasta to cool, then make a pasta salad mixed with creamy mayonnaise, chili, Italian herbs, and parmesan.
3. Pearl barley
Barley has a mild nutty flavor and a lovely chewy texture that is packed with fiber, calcium, and a range of healthy trace elements. Although barley is a classic ingredient for adding to beef or vegetable soup, it is a versatile option for many recipes including orzotto and cholent.
If you decide to use barley as an orzo replacement then it will need to be boiled separately, or added to any water-based dish much earlier. While orzo takes a few minutes to cook, barley will usually take over 30 minutes when added to a simmering liquid. Keep this in mind to avoid tough, unpleasant barley.
Want another option that's a grain? Quinoa is another grain crop that you could add to your meal, although it will be out of place in most Italian recipes.
Fregola (aka succu) is a type of Sardinian couscous made from semolina. Compared to the North African version of couscous which is more commonly found in stores, fregola beads are larger. They also offer a unique nutty flavor that comes from the toasting process when they are produced.
Fregola is a great substitute for orzo if you want to add an extra layer of flavor to your dish. It can be prepared and used in the same way that orzo is. Fregola tastes delicious in pasta bakes, seafood bisques, pasta salads, or as a hearty side dish beside fish or roast meat.
5. Cauliflower rice
Cauliflower rice is a good option for anyone on a gluten-free diet. Although you won’t get the same flavor or texture, it will serve as a tasty side dish alongside any meat, fish, poultry, or vegetable dish of your choice. You wouldn’t add cauliflower rice to a watery pot of soup because it would separate and create an unfamiliar texture.
Couscous is a type of semolina pasta that is tiny and cooks at the blink of an eye. It has a slightly sweet and nutty taste that works well as a side next to most types of food. Like cauliflower rice, we recommend cooking couscous separately and plating up separately. Its flavor will benefit from the addition of salt, pepper, and some fresh herbs.
7. Ditalini pasta
Ditalini is another small tube-like pasta that is similar to a piece of macaroni pasta. This ingredient is often referred to as “little thimbles” and is perfect added to pasta e fagiole, minestrone, or a creamy seafood pasta.
The benefit of ditalini, like any tube pasta, is its shape. It is engineered to catch sauce, bits of meat, and any other ingredients inside its tube, making for a flavorsome mouthful in every spoonful. Cook ditalini according to the packet instructions; you will find it needs to be boiled for a similar time to orzo.
Tip: You can also check out our ditalini substitutes.
Common types of pasta
Check out the infographic below which shows some of the common types of pasta. In addition to the options mentioned above, you may want to consider one of these. Choose a pasta shape that is a similar size for best results.
Is orzo gluten-free?
Orzo is made from durum wheat and is not suitable for a gluten-free diet. Some brands of orzo now produce an alternative gluten-free option, so keep an eye out for them on the supermarket shelves.
Can I substitute Israeli couscous for orzo?
Israeli couscous, or ptitim, is a semolina flour pasta which is a good substitute for orzo. As with regular couscous, it is important not to overcook, so add it at the end of cooking if you intend using it in stew or soups.
- The Italian word “orzo” translates to “barley” in English. This is a reference to the pasta’s shape, which resembles a grain of rice.
- Orzo is a popular ingredient in European cuisine. The Italians and Greeks use it in a range of dishes.
- Orzo can be flavored with other ingredients like sweet potato, black beans, or red peppers. They add inviting color and flavor.
Because most pasta and grains don’t carry a lot of flavor, it makes your search for a good alternative much easier. If you’re looking for an orzo substitute then arborio rice, acini de pepe, pearl barley, or fregola will all make suitable replacements. The best option, however, will depend on why you’re looking for an alternative. We recommend reading each option on this page to decide which is best for your dish.
As the sizes of each ingredient on this page vary, you’ll find they have different cooking times. Pay close attention to this as it's easy to overcook couscous or undercook barley. Most of the small pasta options can be added close to the end of cooking, but they will still have subtle differences in their cook times.
Do you have a replacement that isn’t on this page? Please share with us in the comments and we’ll be sure to test it out.