This Is the Difference Between Orzo and Rice

Rice is rice. Orzo is only shaped like rice.

Orzo
Photo: Roberto Machado Noa/Getty Images

Have you ever found yourself in the kitchen, rice-less, wondering if you can substitute orzo in a favorite recipe? Or vice-versa? It can be tempting, sure—they're the same shape! They look so similar! They're both grain-based?

Pause right there. Rice and orzo share characteristics, but the two foods are not identical. Anyone who tells you orzo and rice are one and the same needs a quick lesson in grains and pastas. If ever you need to differentiate for yourself—or explain the difference to a contrary dinner-goer—just remember: Rice is rice, while orzo is rice-shaped pasta. Orzo is usually made from semolina flour, though it can be made from whole-grain flour or even from a gluten-free mix of corn and rice flour. Technically, both orzo pasta and rice reside in the grains food group and are categorized as cereal grains.

It's not hard to see why you could find yourself looking at a box of orzo and wanting to call it rice. A harried night in the kitchen might find you pouring a cup of grain-shaped orzo into your risotto instead of Arborio rice. These are easy mix-ups because the two do look alike. However, they're not exact substitutions. Their differing textures ensure that your final dish will have a different quality if you substitute one for the other. You'll also find that the cooking times and temperatures for each vary widely.

When to Use Orzo

If you're cooking with rice or orzo, it's important to confirm that you're using the correct rice-shaped ingredient when preparing your grain-based dinner dish. Orzo has a creamier and softer texture than rice. Much like rice, it can double in size when cooked.

Orzo is often used in Mediterranean dishes such as pastas and pasta salads. Although orzo is a pasta, it can also be used to good effect in dishes in which you might initially consider using rice. For instance, orzo can be used to add texture to any soup or as a base for sauteed shrimp. If you are adding orzo in a recipe such as soup or stew, take orzo's tendency to expand while cooking into account.

As a general rule, you cannot substitute the two for each other without altering the recipe, though we're sure there are creative culinarians who, in moments of inspiration (or kitchen crisis), have figured out ways to make it work. Good thing we have a few tips on how to cook orzo in a rice dish.

How to Cook With Orzo

As a small pasta, orzo cooks quickly, typically in 8–10 minutes. This is a much shorter cooking time than the 15–20 minutes generally required for white rice. Brown rice takes even longer to cook, up to 45 minutes. So it's very important to adjust your cooking time if you are substituting orzo for rice. Many recipes will recommend cooking orzo to al dente, which means still firm when bitten. Overcooked pasta will get mushy and can ruin the texture of your dish.

To cook your orzo, heat a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the orzo and boil it for the amount of time recommended on the package. Then drain the pasta in a colander right away. If you will not be using the orzo in your recipe immediately, drizzle it with a little olive oil or butter and toss it before setting it aside. Otherwise, your orzo could turn into a giant clump before you get the chance to prepare your zesty summer orzo salad.

Not every recipe requires pre-boiling your orzo. Some recipes such as this delicious lemon chicken orzo soup will have you cook the orzo directly in the broth or sauce. In that case, it's best to add the orzo in for the last 10 minutes. Keep this guidance in mind, and orzo can make the perfect addition to almost any dish.

Do you cook with orzo or rice? Have you ever substituted the two—on purpose or by accident? Let us know your favorite rice and orzo dishes to cook with your family.

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