Orzo is the Italian word for “barley.” In Italy, the word can of course refer to the grain itself, but might also describe a beverage made from roasted barley or a wheat-based pasta that looks like barley. The term is almost always used for pasta in other parts of the world, though orzo pasta is also called risoni in some places. Its small shape makes it a popular addition to soups and stews, and it can also be prepared as a pilaf in much the same way that rice could be.
Basic Appearance and Taste
Most orzo pasta is made with semolina flour, which many cooks describe as a somewhat “hard” substance. Semolina is usually made from the denser parts of the wheat berry, which gives it something of a firm bite and also helps it hold its shape during cooking. Pastas made with more standard white flour often become quite soft as they boil, growing limp and somewhat floppy in most cases. Orzo becomes chewier, but usually maintains its shape and firmness.
Some manufacturers make whole wheat variations, which have a denser, nuttier flavor in addition to the added health benefits that come with whole grains like improved fiber content and more protein. In many cases it’s also possible to find flavored versions, usually tomato or spinach; these usually come in different colors like pink or green. People can combine different flavors to create dishes that are not only complex in taste but also visually appealing.
This pasta shape is very popular in soups and stews, largely because of how easily it absorbs liquid. Cooks use it to add bulk and interest to otherwise ordinary broths, and it often takes on the flavor of vegetables and meats that is simmers with. It is usually added dry, then left to cook alongside other ingredients. Cooking the pasta in the soup saves the trouble of straining, which can be something of a challenge because of how small each piece is. Many strainers and colanders have holes big enough that even fully cooked pieces can slip through.
Orzo can of course also be prepared on its own, often as a pilaf or casserole, though chefs typically serve these dishes as small plates because of how thick and intense they are. The “grains” often bind together when cooked alone and can be very rich, particularly if combined with cream sauces or cheese. Many food experts compare pilaf-like dishes to risotto, an Italian rice preparation with a similar density.
Where to Find It
Many markets and grocery stores carry dried orzo in their pasta section, and it is considered a “standard” shape by most North American and European manufacturers. It can also be purchased fresh from delicatessens or specialty shops in many places. Pasta purists often argue that fresh is best, at least when it comes to getting the maximum flavor and best texture, though dried versions are often comparable and have the added bonus of staying fresh for longer, at least until they’re cooked. Dried pasta also transports better, making it possible to buy products that were made in Italy as far away as Australia or the United States.
The pasta can also be made from scratch in many cases, and home cooks often add herbs or other spices to make their versions more unique. Getting the shape right can be something of a challenge, though; rolling each “grain” by hand is often very time consuming. People who are serious about pasta making often invest in an extruder, a tool that shapes dough into small grains quickly and consistently.
Storage and Shelf Life
Dried orzo, like most pastas, will keep almost indefinitely when stored in a cool, dark place. Cooks can use what they need and put the rest in a cupboard or on a shelf; refrigeration is not required, though it is often a good idea for people to keep unused portions in an airtight container. Fresh pasta, on the other hand, must usually be cooked and consumed within a few days. These versions should be refrigerated, as leaving them at room temperature can encourage the growth of harmful bacteria.
This pasta is very closely related to couscous, a Middle Eastern food made by crumbling wheat dough into small pieces, and the two can be used interchangeably in many dishes. Rice, barley, and other grains can also make good substitutions or additions, particularly for cooks looking to change the texture or taste of the resulting dish.
Traditional semolina-based orzo is usually considered a simple carbohydrate, much as any other pasta. Many stores sell it as a “specialty” item, and it often features prominently in a number of “healthy living” dishes. Most food scholars agree that there is nothing about orzo that is more or less healthful than any other wheat-based pasta, however. People who want to make their meals more nutritious often choose whole wheat versions, or combine the pasta with other whole grains that don’t feature refined flour.