What is orzo?
Orzo, also named risoni, is an extremely versatile pasta shape used in a multitude of recipes and cuisines. Translating to mean ‘barley’ in Italian due to its resemblance to the grains of unprocessed barely, it is categorized as a ‘pastina’ meaning ‘little pasta’.
The most common variety of orzo is that which is made with semolina flour, distinctive by its slight yellow hue, however, a tricolour variety of orzo can also be found where sun-dried tomatoes and spinach are used to dye the ‘grains’ of pasta.
As well as being the perfect solution for mid-week recipes due to its high protein content, the density of semolina flour used to make orzo provides the pasta with a firmness needed to ensure it maintains its shape whilst remaining soft and light in texture. This is particularly important for cold salads using orzo, as there are often many ingredients which need to be mixed in which might otherwise cause the pasta to fall apart or become stodgy if over-mixed.
How do you cook orzo?
Because orzo is just rice-shaped pasta, the easiest way to cook it is to boil in well-salted water until al dente – typically around 8-10 minutes – before draining. In Italy, orzo is also often added to minestra (a thin, broth-like soup) – simply add the uncooked orzo to your pan of boiling broth 10 minutes before you're ready to serve. To add even more flavour to your orzo, you can toast it in a pan of melted butter for a minute or so, before adding double the quantity of boiling stock and cooking until the liquid is completely absorbed.
What is orzo used in?
Orzo can be used in a variety of cooking, and in Italy it serves as a staple all year round since it is most commonly be found in cold salads or comforting soups. For example, it is often used when making ‘wedding soup’, an Italian delicacy traditionally made using green vegetables, beef and pork meatballs. Wedding soup, or minestra maritata in Italian, literally means ‘married soup’ which is in reference to the perfect union of the greens, meat and pasta.
Although originating in Italy, orzo has long been extremely popular in other cuisines, particularly those along the Mediterranean & the Middle East. For example, traditional Greek giouvetsi (youvetsi), a delicious one-pot-wonder recipe made using beef, spices and a rich tomato sauce, has long used orzo in its recipe. Conversely, using flavours such as chicken stock and green chillies with orzo emulates a dish called ‘birds tongue soup’, named as such because of the way the orzo looks in the chicken broth and is traditionally served during Ramadan across West Africa and the Middle East.
Our favourite orzo pasta recipes
This fresh pasta salad epitomises the Mediterranean way of living and eating, using only a few ingredients, but choosing those of the highest quality. It features a medley of fresh summer vegetables, including asparagus and olives, all coated in a sprightly basil pesto. If you’re feeling indulgent, you could also add a little cooked octopus or squid to this dish.