As someone who dines out a lot for work, I can tell you that barley doesn't appear on a whole lot of menus. And as a home cook, I can see how this grain maybe isn't perceived to be as sexy as farro, as healthy as quinoa or as versatile as oats.
But barley has a lot more going for it than being malted for beer or being dumped in a soup.
For one thing, it's generally cheaper and easier to find than farro, barley's exotic Italian cousin that has seen a rise in popularity. It also packs plenty of nutrients, including fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and is low in fat and cholesterol-free, according to the National Barley Foods Council.
From a cooking perspective, barley is a "great alternative to other starches like potatoes with pasta," says Regan Browell, executive chef of The Restaurant at The Willcox in Aiken, S.C. "It tends to absorb flavor a lot, so it's a good vehicle for other things. It has a really wonderfully nutty aroma to it."
And while barley is often paired with such umami-heavy ingredients as mushrooms and beef, Browell likes to change things up and use it in place of bulgur wheat for tabbouleh, instead of bread in stuffing, or as a stand-in for rice in pilaf. She says it's even a great alternative to oatmeal.
My love of barley started with my mother's beef and barley soup. Beef soup is so hearty and tasty to begin with, but I always felt it was the barley that made this soup so special. It lends a shy creaminess to the broth, and the slightly chewy texture and nutty, earthy flavor blend so well with the other ingredients.
I loved the barley in her soup so much that I started wondering why I didn't use it in any other recipes. What I came up with is that it was partly because of a lack of confidence about which barley to choose and what the differences were. (See box at left for a barley vocabulary lesson.)
When I'm using an ingredient that I don't have a lot of experience with, I find comfort in following a recipe to the letter. When I read a recipe that calls for pearl barley, and then I get to the store and can only find something labeled "barley" or "quick-cooking barley," I start to obsess over whether I'm getting the right thing. And if I don't get a solid answer from a quick grocery-store Internet search, I sometimes just abandon the recipe.
So I set out to educate myself, and in the process have amassed quite a few go-to barley recipes that buck the tradition of soup, soup, soup.
Along the way, I've learned that the varieties are really pretty versatile. You just choose the one that most suits your lifestyle or taste — quick-cooking if you have less time, whole grain if you want more fiber, pearl if you prefer something faster to cook and less chewy than whole-grain barley. But if your recipe calls for pearl barley and the store only has quick-cooking, just add the barley in the last 15 minutes of cooking rather than an hour before it's supposed to be finished. As with most things, it's tough to go wrong when you follow the package instructions.
While I can't resist sharing my mother's beef and barley soup recipe, there are other recipes for when you're all souped out.
This recipe is adapted from one on How to Cook Everything author Mark Bittman's website. Alaina Sullivan, who runs the palate/palette/plate blog, adapted Bittman's risotto recipe to use barley. What drew me to it was the idea of using manchego, which seemed like a clever and flavorful way to work with the nuttiness of barley and make it stand slightly apart from what we think of as risotto.
Makes 6 servings
3 1/2 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms
8 ounces cremini mushrooms
6 ounces sliced portobello mushroom caps
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 large onion, diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 cup pearl barley
3 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped, plus more for garnish
4 fresh bay leaves
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup manchego cheese, grated
Clean mushrooms. If the shiitake caps are large, halve or quarter them. Slice the cremini mushrooms and the portobello caps (or buy pre-sliced caps).
In a medium skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Saute mushrooms, working in batches so as not to crowd the pan. Cook until the mushrooms are browned and soft. Remove from heat and cut the portobello slices into bite-size pieces. Put all mushrooms in a bowl and set aside.
In a small saucepan, bring chicken stock to a boil and then reduce to a low simmer. Keep heat on low.
Put butter in a large, deep nonstick skillet over medium heat. When butter has melted, add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion softens, 3 to 5 minutes.
Add barley and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is glossy and coated with butter, 2 to 3 minutes. Add thyme, bay leaves and garlic, cooking for an additional minute. Add a little salt and pepper, then the white wine. Stir and let the liquid bubble away.
Use a ladle and begin adding the stock, 1/2 cup or so at a time, stirring after each addition. When stock is just about evaporated, add more. The mixture should be neither soupy nor dry. Keep the heat at medium to medium-high and stir frequently.
Begin tasting the barley 20 minutes after you add it. It should be tender but with a tiny bit of crunch. This could take as long as 30 minutes. Then stir in the cooked mushrooms, with their juices, and at least 1/2 cup of manchego. Taste, adjust the seasoning and serve immediately, passing additional manchego at the table.
Not all of my mother's recipes have fared well as my palate has grown more sophisticated, but this one remains a favorite. It's a forgiving recipe made up by a thrifty housewife who had four children (read: little time and little money). She is ambiguous about which cut of meat to use ("whatever is cheapest; you cook it for hours, anyway"), which vegetables to add ("whatever you've got in the house") and measurements of any kind, but I've done my best to make it into something the uninitiated can follow.
Makes 6 servings
1/2 to 1 pound of beef
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup pearled barley
4 small carrots, thinly sliced
1/2 cup frozen peas
1/2 cup frozen corn
1/2 cup frozen green beans
1/2 cup frozen lima beans
1/2 cup grated zucchini
Trim any large pieces of fat from beef. Cut beef into 1/2-inch cubes and pat dry.
Cover the bottom of soup pan with a thin layer of olive oil, about 2 tablespoons. Add meat, salt and pepper, and sear on high heat until the pieces develop a dark crust and dark bits develop on the bottom of the pan, about 10 minutes.
Reduce heat to medium, add remaining tablespoon of oil (if pan looks too dry), and cook the onion until soft, about 1 minute. Add just enough water, about 2 cups, to cover the meat and onion mixture. Cook on medium about 2 hours or until beef is tender, adding water during cooking if it no longer covers the mixture.
Add 4 to 5 cups of water, barley and carrots and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes. Add remaining vegetables and simmer until barley is cooked and vegetables are soft, about 45 minutes.
At the suggestion of a friend, I made this adapted Food & Wine magazine recipe for my daughter's birthday party and couldn't have been happier with the results. It's a beautiful dish, with those light-catching pomegranate seeds and flecks of parsley, but also hearty and satisfying. With all those tempting party foods hanging around, I was pretty surprised that what I really wanted at the end of the day was to cozy up with a big bowl of this barley salad.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
1/3 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 small shallot, minced (2 tablespoons)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 cups thyme-scented pearled barley (recipe below)
1 large tart apple, such as Honeycrisp, cored and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread pine nuts in a pie plate and toast in the oven until golden, about 5 minutes. Let cool.
In a bowl, whisk the oil with the vinegar and shallot and season with salt and pepper. Add the thyme-scented pearled barley (recipe below), pine nuts, apple, pomegranate seeds and parsley. Toss before serving.
The salad without the pine nuts can be refrigerated overnight. Bring the salad to room temperature before serving.
Thyme-Scented Pearled Barley
Makes about 5 cups
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups pearled barley
1 small onion, finely diced
2 thyme sprigs
3 cups water
In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil. Add the pearled barley and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until lightly toasted, 3 to 5 minutes. The grains will turn slightly opaque just before browning. Reduce heat to low and add onion and thyme. Cook while stirring until onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Add the water and 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over very low heat until the water is absorbed and the grains are tender, about 30 minutes. Fluff the grains and discard the thyme sprigs. Season with salt and serve.
This recipe, first printed in The Washington Post's Food section, is an adaptation of one that appears in Joe Yonan's upcoming cookbook, Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook. MAKE AHEAD: The mixture needs to rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to overnight. The cakes can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
Makes 6 to 8 patties
1 cup cooked, cooled pearled barley
1 cup cooked, cooled quinoa
1 cup plain dried breadcrumbs
6 scallions, white and light-green parts, finely chopped
2 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped (2 teaspoons)
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 teaspoon mild curry powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
3 to 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
Vegetable oil, for frying
In a mixing bowl, stir together the barley, quinoa, breadcrumbs, scallions, garlic, cheese, curry powder and salt until thoroughly combined. Stir in 3 eggs and knead the mixture until eggs are thoroughly incorporated. If mixture is crumbly, add the fourth egg and, if needed, a little water so the mixture is moist and the cakes hold together. Cover and refrigerate the mixture for at least 30 minutes or as long as overnight to chill, so the mixture is easier to form into patties.
When ready to cook, set a bowl of water next to the bowl containing the grain mixture. Dip your hands into the water before scooping up about 1/2 cup of the mixture and forming it into a 3-inch patty. Repeat with the remaining mixture, dipping your hands in the water to prevent sticking.
Set a wire rack over a baking sheet. Pour the oil to a depth of 1/2 inch into a large skillet set over medium heat. Once the oil starts to shimmer, use a spatula to transfer a few patties to the skillet, being careful not to crowd them and working in batches if necessary. Pan-fry them on each side until crisp and deeply browned, 2 to 4 minutes per side, then transfer them to the rack to drain.
Serve hot, cold or at room temperature.
This recipe was adapted from Regan Browell, executive chef of The Restaurant at The Willcox in Aiken, S.C. The New Zealand-born chef says she didn't eat barley growing up, but her time spent in other regions has inspired her to experiment with the grain. Here, barley gets away from the time-worn "earthy" flavor pairing and veers toward brightness — thanks to lemon and parsley — plus tanginess from the goat cheese. She says you could add grilled chicken or fish to this dish but that it's every bit as nourishing on its own.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 cup butternut squash, diced
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
2 1/4 cups vegetable stock
3/4 cup pearled barley, uncooked
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon zest
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 cup roasted cashew nuts, chopped
1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 cup soft goat cheese, crumbled
2 cups fresh baby spinach, julienned
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Peel and dice butternut squash. Place on a rimmed cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Toss and bake 45 minutes, or until golden.
Meanwhile, follow the package instructions for cooking the barley, substituting the vegetable stock for water. The barley should be tender and the liquid almost absorbed. Cool to room temperature. Set aside.
In a bowl, combine lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil and mustard, and stir well with a whisk. Add barley, warm squash and remaining ingredients to lemon mixture. Toss gently.