Barley is an ancient grain, but its old school reputation doesn't keep it off the modern table. We use it in a variety of ways: as food for livestock and fish, as a main ingredient in beer, as a sweetener and as a cereal grain for human consumption. Some cultures serve roasted barley steeped in water as a tea. It has also been recognized for medicinal benefits, and the straw from barley shoots has even served as a popular home remedy for decreasing algae in ponds, although further studies have questioned its usefulness as such. Barley has been with us for a long time, indeed, and has been through many ups and downs in our uses and dietary habits through the years, but there's no denying its steadfastness as a nutritious food. Many of today's wellness gurus are encouraging the everyday intake of whole grains like barley, which have sustained us for millennia.
How did such an important food to the development of human civilization get reduced to almost never being eaten as food in the US? What can it be used for, aside from stirring into wintry soups with beef a couple times of year? Find out tips and more traditional uses for this versatile grain.
A Brief History
Barley is among the very first crops to be cultivated. Archaeological digs have revealed that it was domesticated 10,000 years ago, in the Fertile Crescent. Its wild close relative, Hordeum spontaneum, can still be found still in this region, which spans today's Israel, Jordan, south Turkey, Iraq and southwestern Iran. Historians believe that barley and its ancient cousins einkorn and emmer wheat were probably the first domesticated crops, and the catalyst for the birth of civilization. It likely inspired our Neolithic ancestors, who used it for beer and bread, to settle down and ditch hunting and gathering for farming. In ancient civilizations including Egypt, Greece and Rome, barley was a staple crop. And up until roughly the 16th century, barley was the most important grain of Western Europe.
While wheat gradually became preferred over barley for making bread, barley continued to be cultivated through the ages for beer. With limited potable water, beer and other alcoholic beverages (like wine) were everyday drinks, up until modern times. In making beer, the barley grains are sprouted and malted to produce a high sugar content that can be fermented into alcohol. The American colonists brought beer with them to the New World, and began growing barley for its production early on.
Barley has been a commodity crop in the US since colonial times, however, it is grown mostly as a feed crop, for livestock, or for brewers' malt. In recent years, the heavy use of corn has drastically reduced the amount of barley we produce, including in northern parts of the country, which were historically barley-growing regions.
- Barley was used as currency in ancient Mesopotamia.
- The Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote that barley was a food for the gladiators, or the "barley-eaters" in ancient Greece.
- Barley was the model for the size of an inch. In 1324, King Edward II of England standardized the measurement as "three grains of barley, dry and round, placed end to end lengthwise."
- The top five world producers of barley (as of 2010 ) are: Russia, Spain, Canada, Germany and France.
- More than half of the amount of barley produced in the United States is used for animal feed.
- About one quarter of the barley produced in the United States is processed by malting. Some 80 percent of this malted barley is used for the production of beer.
Barley is a hardy crop that prefers cool, dry regions. Most types are not impenetrable to frost, however, sot it's typically sown in spring and harvested in fall in these climates. In warmer climates, it can be planted through winter. Barley has a relatively short growing season among grains, making it convenient as an annual winter cover crop.
The two types of barley commonly grown today are referred to as 2-row and 6-row. These were developed from wild barley for easier harvesting of the grains. Whereas much of Europe prefers 2-row barley for the production of beer due to its lower protein content, North American brewers use both 2-row and 6-row barley. The protein-rich 6-row barley is used predominantly for animal feed. The type of barley most commonly grown for human food production has been bred to grow without hulls, or "naked," and has been eaten for millenia. Pearlized barley, which is most readily found in groceries, takes this one step further by removing the bran from each barley grain. Barley groats, however, are the hulless grains with their bran intact. Bran from barley is often milled into flour and used on its own for its fiber-rich nutrient content. However, most of today's bran flakes cereal uses wheat brain rather than barley.
Barley is an annual plant that can be planted in the spring or fall. It has traditionally been grown in cooler climates, where it thrives, during the summer months for fall harvest. Barley that's planted in the fall, or winter barley, has been developed to withstand colder temperatures. It makes up about one quarter of the barley grown in the United States, while the rest is sowed in spring. Barley, along with other staple grains like wheat and rye, is found in the traditional diets of Northern parts of the world, such as Western Europe, Russia, Northern China and Korea. Once harvested and processed (such as by malting or pearlizing), barley is shelf-stable, and can be eaten throughout the year. It's a hardy and handy crop well suited for mass production.
In addition to growing barley for food, barley is widely used for erosion control. Winter barley roots grow deep into soil, protecting it from wind and rain that can contribute to erosion. This is one reason why barley is often used as a cold-weather cover; it also releases nitrogen into the soil. Barley is also known to help reduce weeds in soil by outcompeting and shading them. Because it prefers dry, arid climates and cannot withstand heavy moisture in the soil, barley is a relatively low water-intensive crop to grow, requiring 171 gallons of water per pound.
There are a number of chemical pesticides found on commercially-grown barley today. Studies have shown that the process of making beer removes many of these chemicals from the eventual product, however. It's not difficult to find organic pearlized barley or barley groats from groceries or small farms to limit your exposure to these pesticides when cooking with the grains.
Barley is a tall, grass-like plant with edible grains clustered around its top. When cooked, the hulless grains soften to small, chewy pebbles that have a nutty, mildly sweet flavor. Pearlized (or "pearl") barley is smoother and less fibrous than barley groats, which have a bran coating. When malted, barley grains are extremely sweet, and can be processed into beer, malt powder or malt syrups. Depending on how the malted grains are roasted, barley can take on varying depths of flavor, used in combination for making beers. Some are deep and chocolately-tasting, others golden and honey-like in flavor. Because of its nutty, earthy flavor as a cooked grain, barley is often found paired with rich and robust foods like beef.
Nutrition and Effects on the Body
Barley is an excellent source of fiber and protein when eaten as a whole grain. A diet high in fiber has been found to aid digestion, lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of types of cancer, particularly colon cancer. Whole barley trumps processed grains like refined flours due to its lower glycemic index, keeping your energy more constant and providing a sense of fulfillment over a longer period of time. Barley is also a rich source of mineral nutrients such as phosphorus, maganese, selenium, copper and B vitamins. It, along with other whole grains, is associated with heart healthfulness and widely recommended for reducing the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
What to Do with It and Cooking
Barley is extremely versatile in the kitchen. Cooked whole grains can be used as a substitute in any dish involving white rice. Its more pronounced flavor and texture can be a complementary nuance when cooked like risotto, and its chewy texture makes it a fun substitute for pasta. It's often used in soups and stews; try it instead of orzo or pastini in your minestrone. Use it as the base of a rich casserole with meats or dairy. It can also be served in a warm pilaf or cold salad with chopped vegetables and herbs. Of course, it can also be a starring player in a soup, such as the traditional Persian soup-e jo, or barley chicken soup.
Once barley is malted, its most common preparation is, of course, beer. Beer can be used in cooking as a braising liquid or for reducing into flavorful syrups. Or, you can find malt syrups as a natural sweetener in many stores such as health food groceries, to use in place of refined sugar. Its round, toasty flavor will add depth to any dessert when used instead. Malt powder has traditionally been used as a distinctive sweetener as well. Although it can be difficult to find this ingredient as an average consumer, its irresistibly sweet flavor has been exploited in candies as well as milkshakes (known as "malts," when malt powder is added).
You might consider barley as an ingredient at your holiday table, as a side dish instead of potatoes, or as stuffing. Or, to cook ahead for a week's worth of quick meals. Here are a few ideas for entrees using barley.
Lemony Gold Beet Barley Risotto
(From Lucid Food)
1 cup pearled barley
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
4 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra
1 yellow onion, finely diced
2 gold beets, peeled and diced small
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup white wine
11⁄2 cups crumbled ricotta salata
2 teaspoons lemon zest (preferably from an organic lemon)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper
- Soak the barley in cold water to cover for 8-24 hours. Strain.
- Pour the stock into a pot and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to a simmer.
- Heat a large soup pot over medium high heat. Add the olive oil, then the onion, and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the beets, garlic, salt, and barley and sauté for another 5 minutes. Stir in the wine and cook until it has evaporated, about 2 minutes. Ladle a cup of stock into the risotto and stir until the liquid is absorbed. Repeat, adding stock 1 cup at a time, until the barley is tender. This will take 30-35 minutes. Reserve 1⁄4 cup of stock to stir into the risotto at the very end.
- When the barley is tender, turn off the heat and stir in 1 cup of the ricotta, the lemon zest and juice, and the remaining 1⁄4 cup stock. Salt to taste.
- To serve, fill a bowl with risotto and spoon a little olive oil on top. Garnish with the remaining ricotta, and season with freshly ground black pepper.
Barley and Apple Stuffed Acorn Squash
(From Clean Eating)
Hands-on time: 20 minutes
Total time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
1⁄4 cup uncooked hulled barley
1⁄4 cup crushed unsalted walnuts
1 tbsp chopped fresh basil or 1 tsp dried basil
1 apple (McIntosh, Cortland or Empire), peeled, cored and diced
1 tbsp pure maple syrup
1⁄2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 acorn squash
2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
- In a medium pot, add barley and 1cup water. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour; set aside.
- Preheat oven to 350°F. In a medium bowl, mix together walnuts, basil, apple, maple syrup and cinnamon. Add cooked barley to mixture.
- Cut squash in half across the middle and remove seeds (TIP: Try an ice cream scoop.) Then trim ends off each squash half. Place, skin side down, in a baking dish and drizzle each half with oil, dividing evenly.
- Fill center of each squash half with barley mixture, dividing evenly. Cover dish with aluminum foil. Bake for 1 hour, remove foil and bake for 20 more minutes or until squash is slightly brown and tender.
This post was originally published in November 2014.