Can You Eat Orzo If You're Gluten-Free?

How to Know If Orzo Is Safe for a Gluten-Free Diet

Orzo

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman 

Orzo, a type of pasta, is not gluten-free. Orzo is made from wheat semolina flour, and wheat contains gluten. Luckily, it is becoming easier to find gluten-free orzo on grocery store shelves or to substitute other ingredients for orzo in recipes if you are following a gluten-free diet.

Must-Know Facts About Orzo and Gluten

The word "orzo" means "barley" in Italian, but most orzo pasta does not contain barley (also a gluten-containing grain). Wheat semolina flour, traditionally used to make orzo pasta, is a coarser type of flour made from high-protein durum wheat that contains an above-average amount of gluten.

Orzo is made intentionally to resemble rice (which is gluten-free). Even when orzo is cooked, people will sometimes mistake it for Italian arborio rice, particularly if it's been cooked al dente (firm to the bite).

Why Orzo-Containing Foods Are Not Gluten-Free

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 an ingredient in other dishes, including in dishes that also contain rice.

That means you need to watch out for orzo in:

  • soups
  • salads
  • rice dishes
  • casseroles

Since orzo looks very much like rice, it's easy to mistake it for rice in these types of dishes. That's where people who have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity get into trouble with orzo.

Therefore, when you're eating out, make sure to watch out for anything that looks like grains of rice or rice pilaf on your plate or in your soup bowl, and ask the chef whether that "rice" might actually be orzo pasta.

What to Look For

It's possible to find gluten-free orzo. 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.

In fact, as a cooking ingredient, gluten-free orzo offers several advantages over semolina-based orzo.

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 that 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 liquid, especially if left standing for long. 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 pasta has become mushy.

This won't happen with gluten-free 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.

Alternatives & Substitutions

To accommodate the gluten-free diet, short-grained brown rice or quinoa can be substituted for orzo. Lundberg brand rice and quinoa products are especially reliable.

Other possible substitutes for orzo in recipes 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.

A Word from Verywell

Orzo is a versatile pasta that is fast to cook (a major benefit if you're in a rush) and goes well in everything from salads to soups. People who love orzo know that it is delicious when cooked with green peppers, tomatoes, onion, and olive oil in a tabouli-style salad, or with spinach and shrimp in this Mediterranean salad recipe.

You also can use orzo to make delicious meatballs, or in vegan grain bowls and other vegan recipes. Any of these recipes would work just fine with gluten-free orzo.

Still, if you see something that looks like long-grained rice in food you're about to eat at a restaurant or at someone else's home, just double-check that it's really rice and not conventional orzo.

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