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What Is Barley and How Do You Cook With It?

This is malted barley ready for processing into beer.

This is malted barley ready for processing into beer.

How Is Barley Used?

Barley (Hordeum vulgare) is a grass that grows much like wheat. The grass produces a super nutritious whole grain that is full of fiber and protein.

One of the top five grains in the world, barley has been around since the stone age. This versatile grain is said to have originated in Ethiopia or perhaps a western part of Asia.

Only 10% of the world's barley crop is used for human consumption.

Nearly one-third of the barley crops worldwide is used for malted beverages such as whiskey or beer, but most of the world's barley crop is used to feed livestock.

Types of Barley

There are many different ways that barley can be processed, but there are only a few basic kinds of barley that are grown.

Covered barley or hulled barley is what actually grows on the grass grain plants. This type of barley has an inedible hull or covering that gives this it its name. It has to be harvested and then the hulls removed to make the grain palatable.

The other kind of barley that's not as commonly grown is called naked barley. Just like the name suggests, it is a hulled barley but with a hull that generally flakes off around the time it comes to harvest the plants. This variety, though called hulless, still retains the bran and germ, but obviously, the process of removing the hull is much simpler.

There is an Ethiopian type of barley called black barley, which is another hulless variety of barley. It isn't raised much because it is relatively low yield. This form of barley is also similar to pearl barley.

Different Kinds of Barley

Even though there are only a few types of barley, the fact of the matter is, there are actually many different kinds of barley because of the way it can be processed.

Hulled Barley

This is the real deal. Most of the hull is left on, so the bran layer remains intact. It's also called whole wheat barley. This variety of barley is very nutritious and high in fiber and protein. It's considered a whole grain in this form. It does require a longer cook time and is quite chewy, having a very distinctive taste.

Hulless Barley

This is the kind of barley that has the bran still intact and just the outer shell or hull has been removed. It's still considered a whole grain.

Barley Grits

This form of barley consists of kernels that are toasted and then cracked into small pieces. They are similar to hominy grits, buckwheat grits, or oat groats. They can be used as a side dish or made into a cereal. If the grits come from hulled or hulless barley, then the grits are considered whole grain. If they come from pearl barley, they are not considered whole grain. This form of barley cooks in relatively shorter periods of time because the bits are smaller in size.

Barley Flakes

This type of barley is similar in appearance to rolled oats. The barley kernels have been sliced, steamed, rolled to become flakes, then dried. They are much like quick-cooking oats and cook in a short period of time. Depending on if they came from whole grain barley or pearl barley, they have different levels of nutrition and fiber.

Barley Flour

This is also called barley meal. It has a low gluten content, so it is slow to rise. It's usually mixed with other flours like whole wheat if it's used in something that needs to rise. It can also be used as a thickener. Again, if the flour is made from hulled or hulless barley, it will be whole grain but if made from pearl barley, it cannot be considered a whole grain flour.

Pearl Barley

This is the type of barley most commonly used in the United States. It is also the most processed. It is highly processed, in fact. If you have a choice between tan pearl barley and white barley, tan barley is "less" processed than white barley. Both of these kinds of barley have been refined to the point that they are no longer considered whole grains. This kind of barley cooks faster and is a favorite for soups and stews. It can also be used for any barley dishes, but again, most of the nutritious elements have been refined out. Roughly two-thirds of its nutritional value is lost by converting it to pearl barley. Pearl barley is therefore considered a refined grain. Just remember that using pearl barley is like using white rice—it may have great flavor but nothing substantially nutritious to offer.

Quick Barley

This is actually pearl barley taken even further so that it cooks in 10 to 15 minutes. There is relatively little nutritional value left in the barley at this stage, having been refined to the max.

Cooking With Barley

There are many great ways to cook with barley, whether you're a meat eater, a vegetarian, or a vegan. Many different cross sections of people like to cook with barley because of its high nutritional value—especially if you stick with the whole grain types.

Even if you do prefer to use some of the more refined barley types, you're getting some nutritional value—just not as much as if you use the whole grain processed kinds.

Where can you find barley? In the supermarket in packages (mostly pearl barley), in the bulk bins, and at specialty food stores. You can buy it in bulk—just be careful to store it in a dry place and, if you have any doubts, vacuum seal the bags. You can also store it in the fridge or freezer.

If you're using whole grain barley, recipes most often call for soaking. Even grits or groats usually need to be soaked for a period of time to soften them up.

Cooking Suggestions for Barley

  • It's great in soups and stews like beef barley soup.
  • Try baked barley or boiled barley.
  • You can cook barley in a pressure cooker
  • Try barley in the rice cooker.
  • Steamed barley is a great favorite.
  • Use barley like you would rice to make a pilaf.
  • Barley stuffed cabbage rolls is a great recipe.
  • Mix barley with vegetables and grains like beans, lentils, mushrooms, carrots, and celery.
  • Wild rice or brown rice mixed with barley makes a great nutritious side dish or a standalone meal.
  • Flavor barley much as you would rice—use spices or add things like slivered almonds, onions, vegetable stock, or flavorings such as molasses.
  • Barley makes a great breakfast cereal—just allow soak time and cook time.
  • Use barley flour in recipes, but don't substitute it for all the flour if the recipe needs to rise.
  • Try barley flake cereal topped with fruit.

Questions & Answers

Question: Does barley have little black particles that float while cooking?

Answer: I don't think you should have black particles floating unless it's a different kind of barley.

Question: Can you sprout barely?

Answer: You can! Here is more information about that:

Question: Is there a barley that turns red after cooking?

Answer: Not that I know of though I have heard of red barley in beer. I did not find anything specifically about red barley after cooking though.