Real Food Encyclopedia | Barley
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.
Barley is among the very first crops to be cultivated. Archaeological digs have revealed that barley 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 were probably the first domesticated crops, and the catalyst for the birth of civilization. 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.
How did such an important food to the development of human civilization get reduced to being rarely eaten in the United States? 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.
Fun Facts about Barley:
- 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.”
- 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.
What to Look for When Buying Barley
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 millennia. 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.
Sustainability of Barley
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 crop. It also releases nitrogen into the soil.
Barley is 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.
Pesticides and Barley
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 Seasonality and Geography
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, 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.
Barley and Cultivation
Barley is an annual plant that has traditionally been grown in cooler climates where it’s grown over the summer. 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 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.
How to Cook Barley
Cooking With Barley
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 jo, or barley chicken soup.
Once barley is malted, its most common preparation is, of course, beer. You can use malt syrups as a natural sweetener 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).
Barley is an excellent source of fiber and protein when eaten as a whole grain. 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, manganese, 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.