Barley's hardiness and short growing season have made it a vital food crop for much of human history, providing a nutritious staple in climates ranging from subarctic to tropical. Barley fed the Greek heroes of Homer and Rome's gladiators, and it remains a nutritious and versatile -- if under-appreciated -- food. You can select from several ways to prepare barley, and most involve simmering it in water or a more flavorful liquid, such as broth.
A Quick Barley Primer
Barley has a tough and inedible hull that must be removed before the grain can be eaten. The simplest way to do this is by friction, a process called "pearling" that also removes its bran. Pearled barley is the familiar small and pale grain used in soups, missing the germ and bran but still nutritious. Health food stores often stock whole, hulled barley, which is the most beneficial because it retains its bran and germ. Pot barley is an in-between stage, pearled but still retaining some of its germ and bran. The three cook differently, but -- because barley contains high levels of fiber even in its starchy interior -- all can be considered a healthy grain option.
The simplest way to cook barley is to simmer it in water, as you would with most other grains. Highly absorbent, barley requires more water. Pearl barley requires 3 cups of water for every cup of grain, and although it's less absorbent, hulled barley requires at least 2 1/2 cups and can require more. Simmer pearled barley for 20 to 25 minutes, until tender and chewy, and hulled barley for 40 minutes or longer. Drain any excess moisture, in the case of hulled barley, then let the grain rest for 10 minutes to absorb the remaining surface moisture and become slightly firmer.
Variations on the Theme
You can vary the base preparation in several ways. Add flavor by substituting broth for the water, or by adding herbs and fresh spices. Saute aromatic onions, garlic or other vegetables before adding the grain and liquid, and the end result is a tasty barley pilaf. Adding another cup or more of hot broth to the pan, and stirring continuously, and your pilaf becomes a creamy-textured barley risotto. Add a cup or more of additional liquid to your plain barley to make barley polenta -- the standard version until maize was brought back from the New World -- or add milk to make barley porridge as a cold-weather breakfast.
From Salads to Waffles
Hulled, pearled or pot barley can all be used in salads as a substitute for bulgur wheat, rice, quinoa or couscous. Toss the grain with greens, diced vegetables, chopped herbs and an appropriate dressing, for a healthy and pleasantly chewy alternative to your regular grains. Simple simmered barley makes a fine base for stir-fries or stews, and barley pilaf or risotto is perfectly at home alongside grilled, broiled or roasted meats. Barley flour lends an interesting depth of flavor to breads and multigrain pancakes or waffles, or can be used on its own to make flatbreads or cookies.