Can You Eat Orzo on the Gluten-Free Diet?

Increasing variety of safe substitutes now available

orzo in bowl
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Orzo is a type of pasta that is intentionally shaped to look like rice. Even when cooked, people will sometimes mistake it for Italian arborio rice, particularly if cooked al dente (firm to the bite). As a wheat-based pasta, it is on the no-no list for people with celiac disease.

The word "orzo" translates to "barley" in Italian due to its characteristic grain-like shape. It does not actually contain any barley (also off limits if you have a gluten sensitivity) but is instead made from wheat semolina flour.

Luckily, it is becoming easier to find gluten-free orzo on grocery store shelves or to substitute with other ingredients in you are maintaining a gluten-free diet.

How Orzo Is Used

Orzo, also known as risoni (or "big rice"), is a form of short-cut pasta. Orzo can be served on its own but is more commonly used as a soup accompaniment, in cold salads, in baked casseroles, or an additive to rice dishes.

It is this latter form that can be most problematic for people with gluten intolerance. Unfortunately, there are plenty of pilaf dishes prepared in this manner since the combination gives the final dish a texture vaguely reminiscent of risotto. It is for this reason that you would need to ask if there is any orzo or risoni included in a rice dish when dining out.

Advantages of Gluten-Free Orzo

As a cooking ingredient, gluten-free orzo offers several advantages over semolina-based orzo due to a quality most of us consider lacking.

One of the major drawbacks about gluten-free pasta, in general, is that it has a slightly plastic-y quality that fails to replicate the "bite" or mouthfeel of regular pasta. This is due to the fact that is often made with rice which has a slightly gluey texture when processed.

It is this quality actually makes gluten-free orzo a better choice as a soup additive. When regular pasta is added to soup, it will increasingly swell and release starch into the liquids if left standing. What this means is that if you make a big batch of soup, by the second day you may find the soup has become overly thick and that the orzo has become mushy.

This won't happen with orzo. By and large, it will retain its texture with minimal swelling and not cause any major changes to the texture or taste of the soup even after one or two days. This is especially true of orzo that contains coarsely milled corn flour.

DeLallo Gluten-Free Orzo is one brand that we particularly like. It is made from 70 percent corn flour and 30 percent rice flour with no other added ingredients.

Orzo Substitutes

People who love orzo know that it is delicious when cooked with green peppers, tomatoes, onion, and olive oil in a tabouli-style salad. To accommodate the gluten-free diet, short-grained brown rice or quinoa can be substituted. Lundberg brand rice and quinoa products are especially reliable.

Other possible substitutes include amaranth, a type of cooked seed which a slightly sweet/nutty flavor, and millet, a grain with a delicate nuttiness. Depending on how long you cook them, they can either be toothsome or have more a soft, porridge-like texture.

Whatever you do, have fun and experiment. It's very likely that you will find something that works out perfectly in your gluten-free regimen.

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