Barley may be one of the more familiar grains, known as an ingredient in Grandma's beef and barley soup or for its important role in beer brewing. But it rates a far more versatile role on the menu. It's the world's oldest cultivated cereal, and it grows in varied climates around the globe, making it an important staple in many cuisines.
What Is Barley?
Pearl barley, the more common variety in the United States, does not technically qualify as a whole grain, since the outer bran layer has been polished off, but it's still a highly nutritious option. It's inexpensive, readily available, and easy to cook, and it can be interchanged with rice in many dishes. Barley groats, the whole grain version, take quite a bit longer to cook.
How to Cook Barley
Cook pearl barley the way you cook rice. Cover 1 cup of barley with 2 cups of water, chicken stock, or vegetable broth and simmer it for 30 to 40 minutes; fluff it with a fork before you serve it. You can also use a rice cooker. Add 2 1/2 cups of liquid per cup of barley. If you pre-soak barley in plenty of water, it cuts down the overall cooking time. Barley can be pre-soaked for an hour or up to overnight. Pre-soaking reduces the cooking time to about 15 minutes. Barley can also be cooked in a pressure cooker; follow the individual instructions on your own unit, since cook times can vary a bit between models.
Although barley soup (even this version with lentils) is probably the most popular and familiar way to eat barley, you can use it just like you would use any other grain such as couscous, quinoa, or rice. Serve a vegetarian curry or vegetable stir-fry over barley instead of rice or make a barley pilaf or a barley salad (just you would make a quinoa salad or a rice pilaf), or simply add a handful to your favorite soup or salad.
What Does It Taste Like?
Cooked barley has a slightly chewy texture and nutty flavor, similar to brown rice and farro. It's a versatile neutral base for any number of dishes, from stir-fry meals to casseroles to protein bowls and breakfast porridge.
Try some creative healthy vegetarian and vegan barley recipes.
Where to Buy Barley
Most grocery stores stock pearl barley; look for it near the dried beans and lentils. You can also often find it in the bulk bins. Barley groats, which have only the outer hull removed, may be packaged as hull-less barley but aren't as readily available. You may need to check at a health-food store or go online for those. It's easy to substitute one for the other by adjusting the cooking time accordingly.
Store dry barley in an airtight container away from moisture and light. Kept this way, it lasts indefinitely, making it a good option for an emergency food supply. Cooked barley should be refrigerated and consumed within three or four days. Plain cooked barley can be frozen for up to six months, making it convenient to add to a quick-cook meal or beverage.
Nutrition and Benefits
According to the FDA, barley's soluble fiber reduces the risk of coronary heart disease and can lower cholesterol. Barley also contains insoluble fiber, which reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes and colon cancer. A 1-cup serving of cooked barley provides 193 calories, 6 grams of fiber and 3.5 grams of protein. With less than one gram of total fat per serving, barley is a virtually fat-free food and is also completely cholesterol-free.
Dehulled barley, or hulless barley, sometimes also called unhulled barley, is unprocessed and takes longer to cook than the more common pearl barley, which has been polished to remove some or all of the outer layer of bran. Quick cooking barley (sometimes called "instant barley") are precooked flakes, so it takes only 10 minutes to cook. Try adding a handful of quick cooking barley to a simmering pot of soup.
The malted barley used in beer brewing comes from the sprouted version of the grain; malted barley syrup can be used at home as a sweetener.
US Federal Register Volume 73, Number 159. Food labeling: health claims; soluble fiber from certain foods and risk of coronary heart disease. August 15, 2008.
Wolever R, Reardon B, Hannan T. The Mindful Diet How to Transform Your Relationship with Food for Lasting Weight Loss and Vibrant Health. Scribner. 2016.
US Department of Agriculture. FoodData Central. Barley, pearled, cooked. Updated April 1, 2019.