Is Orzo Gluten-Free?

It Looks Like Rice, But It's Not!

orzo in bowl
This is orzo - is it gluten-free?. Amy Neunsinger/Getty Images

Orzo looks very much like a fine-grained rice (and it's easy to mistake it for rice). But it's actually a form of wheat-based pasta ... which makes it most definitely not gluten-free (there's one exception, which I detail below).

In fact, "orzo" means "barley" in Italian, even though the pasta most commonly is made from wheat semolina flour, not from barley. Either way, the results wouldn't suit someone who has celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity — both wheat and barley are gluten grains, and off-limits on the gluten-free diet.

The Problem with Orzo

Orzo is a bit dangerous — because it looks so much like rice, it can masquerade as rice in dishes where you're not expecting it.

For example, I've seen orzo as an ingredient in rice pilaf recipes (blending in nicely with the actual rice), and in soups, where it would be very easy to mistake for rice. It's also used in salads and on its own with different types of sauces.

The bottom line: Orzo isn't gluten-free, even though it might look okay at times. Which brings up another point: Always make certain of the ingredients for anything you're planning to eat, even if it looks perfectly safe.

What to Substitute for Orzo in Recipes

My mom used to make a terrific Mediterranean-style recipe that combined orzo, green peppers, tomatoes, onion and olive oil into a kind of tabouli salad (tabouli is another thing you need to avoid if you're gluten-free, as it's just another name for bulgar wheat).

In any event, I missed that salad when I went gluten-free, so I decided to try to recreate the taste with gluten-free ingredients.

I discovered it's possible to substitute short brown rice for orzo in the recipe. They don't quite taste the same (the orzo tasted slightly nuttier, while the brown rice can be a little softer).

But overall, I like how the recipe turned out. I use Lundberg short brown rice, which is reliably gluten-free.

You also could consider substituting quinoa for the orzo. This wouldn't produce the same texture (quinoa is smaller and has more of a slippery feel than the original wheat pasta), but it might duplicate the nuttier flavor.

The bottom line: experiment and you'll likely find something that works.

Gluten-Free Orzo Now Available

Gluten-free orzo seems like a contradiction since orzo is wheat pasta. But I've discovered a product made with ingredients sourced from northern Italy that recreates orzo in a gluten-free version. 

DeLallo gluten-free orzo is made from corn and rice flours (70% corn and 30% rice, with no other ingredients). It's intended as a direct substitute for gluten-containing orzo pasta, so you can use it in all your recipes with no other alterations.

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