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Ingredient Profile: Barley

Fine Cooking Issue 71
Photos: Scott Phillips
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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.

Hulled barley (barley groats) has had its inedible husk removed but still has its nutritious, fiber-rich bran layer.
Pearl barley has been refined to strip it of its bran and germ. It’s still nutritious, though not so much as hulled barley; it’s to hulled barley as white rice is to brown rice. Pot or scotch barley is a less refined type of pearl barley.  
Rolled or flaked barley is hulled barley that’s been flattened, like rolled oats.
Quick-cooking barley is flattened and parcooked, so it cooks faster; nutritionally, it’s similar to pearl barley.

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.


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