Barley is a nutritious and versatile cereal grain, and has been grown by humans for around 10,000 years, making it one of the earliest grains to be cultivated. Today, it is grown all over the world, mostly in temperate regions, and in 2017 it was ranked 4th in terms of overall production, behind corn, rice and wheat.
Despite this, you’re far less likely to find barley on your dinner table than the top three, unless you’re enjoying a glass of beer with your food. Much of the grain produced is turned into animal feed, and a large proportion is fermented and turned into beer or whisky. But barley actually has a lot to offer as an edible grain. It is tasty and highly nutritious, particularly in wholegrain form, providing a great source of both protein and fibre. It is also extremely versatile, and can be used in a variety of dishes, both savoury and sweet.
There are many different ways to use barley. As a grain, it can be used to add extra flavour and texture to soups, stews and casseroles, and it can also be used as a slightly nuttier version of rice - think barley pilaf, barley risotto, or even barley pudding. You can add it to grain bowls and stuffings, or soak it in milk to make a healthy porridge. Barley flakes are a tasty and nutritious addition to your morning cereal, and barley flour can be used to make deliciously malty flatbreads.
Barley is available in various forms. It can be eaten with its hull intact or removed, both of which count as wholegrain, but while the grain in its hull has a few more nutrients, it can be a little tough and chewy. Pearl barley is a more processed form of barley, popular for its fast cooking time, but with only a third of the nutrients of whole grain barley. Whichever type you decide to use, remember that barley expands during cooking and soaking, so 1 cup of barley will become 3 or 4 cups by the time you’re done.
These savoury barley recipes each show a different way to use this versatile and tasty grain.
Barley salad with spinach and pumpkin: a warming and satisfying fall dish, this hearty grain salad mixes pearl barley with sweet, mellow pumpkin, iron-rich spinach and Parmesan shavings.
Kale soup with meat dumplings, pearl barley and lemon: this fragrant kale soup is flavoured with ginger, lemon and sweet, nutty pearl barley grains, with tasty meat dumplings to make a meal of it.
Curried barley pilaf: this aromatic barley pilaf from All Recipes is rich with Indian spices, and tastes great either by itself or served with chicken or fish.
Barley-stuffed peppers: this quick and tasty dish from Epicurious is a great choice for a simple weeknight meal, and it’s suitable for vegetarians too.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, these barley recipes are perfect for a treat after dinner or even at breakfast.
Almond barley porridge with fruit: this surprisingly decadent porridge from Epicurious is rich with cream, white chocolate and vanilla, all topped with a sweet cherry compote.
Apple cinnamon barley pudding: a twist on rice pudding from The Healthy Foodie, this tasty dessert is flavoured with a classic combination of apples, raisins and cinnamon.
Coconut barley pudding: this creamy dessert from A Pretty Life in the Suburbs has a temptingly tropical flavour, with sweet coconut milk, zesty lime juice, and the optional extra of pineapple juice.
Barley vs other grains
There are various different types of grain, many of which can be used in similar ways to barley. Here is how some of the more popular and well-known grains compare.
Wheat: one of the most popular grains on earth, wheat plays a huge part in the average Western diet. Unlike barley, it is rarely eaten as a grain, instead being milled into flour, which is then made into a wide variety of popular foods, including staples like bread and pasta.
These two grains are similar in terms of nutrients, but barley has the edge when it comes to fibre content, and is particularly high in a particular type of fibre called beta-glucan, which has been linked to lower cholesterol. Both barley and wheat contain gluten, making them unsuitable for coeliacs and people with gluten allergies.
Oats: popularly eaten as a breakfast cereal, oats are another member of the grass family, although they are less closely related than barley and wheat. Oats are naturally gluten-free, but they often come into contact with other grains during processing, so if you have allergies, always check the packaging to make sure your oats are certified gluten-free. In terms of nutrition, barley is higher in fiber, while oats are higher in protein and slightly higher in calories
Bulgur: also known as bulgur wheat, bulgur is a type of wheat that is eaten as a grain. It has been cracked to make it cook more quickly, and to achieve a finer texture, but it is still a whole grain, with the healthy bran and germ intact. If you’re watching your weight, bulgur is the lower calorie option, but in terms of nutrients, barley is higher in both protein and fibre.
Quinoa: technically not a grain at all, quinoa is often referred to as a pseudocereal, because it acts like a grain, and can be eaten in much the same way, but it is not a member of the cereal family, and is actually more closely related to spinach. Quinoa is a great gluten-free alternative to barley, and is also much easier and quicker to cook. It is not so high in fibre, but is higher in protein than barley, famously containing all of the essential amino acids.
Rye: a close relative of both barley and wheat, rye can be made into flour and baked into bread, like wheat, and is sometimes used to make beer and whisky, like barley. It is particularly high in dietary fibre, providing more than most cereals, barley included.