In its heyday during ancient times, barley was the most important cereal grain in the world. First cultivated in the Near East at least 8,000 years ago, barley was used as currency, as a unit of measure, as medicine, and as a sacred offering as well as for food. In modern times, though, barley has lost much of its glamour. It’s used mainly for making malt for beer, malt vinegar, and other products. But given its versatility, maybe it’s time for a barley renaissance.
Forms of barley
Like most grains, barley is processed into a number of different forms.
Where to find barley
Look in health-food stores for whole hulled barley, pot barley, and rolled barley. In supermarkets, you’ll find pearl barley near the dried beans, and quick-cooking barley in the hot cereal section.
Cooking with barley
Barley has a mild flavor that’s not as nutty as many other grains, but it has an unusually chewy texture—it pops softly as you bite it. It can be used in just about every way that rice is used—in pilafs, soups, and even risottos (see Lemon Barley “Risotto” with Shrimp). Rolled barley is often eaten as a hot cereal.
It’s usually a good idea to rinse barley before cooking. Whole hulled barley takes about an hour to cook (though a pressure cooker can speed things along). Pearl barley and rolled barley need about 20 minutes to get tender. Quick-cooking barley is usually done in 12 to 15 minutes.