A glass of beer, a loaf of bread, a bowl of cereal, a standard of measurement, a form of currency, a medication – they all began with Barley – an ancient grain, possibly even older than rice. Barley’s once exalted status has been redefined. No longer does it serve as a unit of monetary exchange or a unit of measurement. No physician thinks of prescribing it for an ailing patient. Now, barley is largely relegated to being a food or a key ingredient in the making of beer.

We owe much to the desert nomads and the camel caravans who endured sand storms and unrelenting heat to trade their sacks of barley with distant neighbors, who then traded with other distant neighbors. Our steaming bowl of bean and barley or mushroom barley soup is a hand-me-down recipe with roots that take us back to prehistoric man. In 2005 barley ranked fourth for cereal production. There are many types of barley, many different uses for it and a long history of its importance to mankind.

Cultivated barley is descended from wild barley, which still grows wild in the Middle East. Cultivated barley is an annual plant, but there are also many other perennial species. The exact origin of barley is debatable, possibly originating in Egypt, or Ethiopia, or the Near East or Tibet. However, we are fairly certain that barley was among the earliest cultivated grains, around the same time as the domestication of wheat. Barley was grown in the Middle East prior to 10,000 BC, but barley’s cultivation in China and India probably occurred later. Barley was grown on the Korean Peninsula by 1500-850 BC along with millet, wheat and legumes. In ancient Egypt (3200 BC to 30 BC) barley bread and beer (made from barley) was a major part of the diet.

Barley Bread

Barley Malt Beer

As one of the first cereals cultivated in the Middle East, barley was used by ancient civilizations as food for humans and animals, as well as to make alcohol. Actually, the first known recipe for barley wine dates back to 2800 B.C.E. in Babylonia. Barley water has also been used for various medicinal purposes since ancient times. The ancient Greeks relied on barley to make bread and athletes attributed much of their strength and physical growth to their barley-containing diets. Roman athletes also honored barley for the strength it gave them. The gladiators were known as hordearii, meaning “eaters of barley”.  Since the heads of barley are heavy and contain numerous seeds, barley was also honored in ancient China as a symbol of male virility.

Given the relatively high cost of wheat in the Middle Ages, many Europeans at that time made bread from a combination of barley and rye. In the 1500’s, the Spanish introduced barley to South America. The English and Dutch settlers of the 1600’s brought barley to the United States. Today, the largest commercial producers of barley are Canada, the United States, Russia, Germany, France and Spain.

Types of Barley

Barley has many different varieties and there are many ways to classify barley.

One classification identifies barley by whether there are two, four or six rows of grains on the head. Six row barley can produce 25-60 grains, while two-row barley produces 25-30 grains.Wild barley is two-row and most cultivated barley is of the six-row type.

Another way to classify barley is to describe the beards (awns) covering the kernels – as long or short.

Barley can also be described as hulled or hulless (naked), malt type, height or seed color (colorless, white, yellow, blue).

Still others classify barley into 4 types based on geography: Manchurian types, Coast types, Hannchen types or Compana-Smyrna types

Barley is grown for many purposes, but the majority of all barley is used for food or malting. High protein barleys are generally valued for food and starchy barley for malting. Most barley used for food is either pearled barley or barley flour. Prior to the 1500’s barley flour was the main ingredient for breads. The second most important use of barley is for malt and, in the US, there are price premiums for malting barley. Malt is used to produce beer, distilled alcohol, malt syrup, malted milk, malt flavoring and breakfast foods.

Hulled Barley

Hulled Barley is the most nutritious form of barley with only the outermost hull removed. With its bran still intact, it is nutrient dense and high in fiber. It’s full of important trace minerals, like iron and contains a range of B vitamins. Although the cooking time is longer than for other types of barley, the nutritional benefits are worth the effort. The added bonus is its distinct nutty flavor and brownish color. While it’s generally unavailable in most supermarkets, you’ll likely find it in health food stores.

Pearl Barley

Pearl Barley or Pearled Barley is the most common form of barley available and is sold in most supermarkets. Because the outer hulls including the bran have been removed, the grains have a pearly white color. The polishing process involves scouring the barley six times during milling to completely remove the outer hull and the bran layer. Though pearled barley cooks in less time than the whole grain hulled form, many of its nutrients are scoured away along with the bran. Still, pearl barley is rich in protein and high in fiber.

Quick Barley, or instant barley, is pearl barley that is pre-steamed then dried, shortening the cooking time considerably, about 10 to 12 minutes.

Scotch Barley, also called Pot Barley, is slightly less refined than the pearl barley and is scoured only three times, leaving part of the hull remaining. Health food markets may be the only place to find this uncommon variety.

Barley Grits are processed similar to bulghur wheat. The grain is cracked, toasted or parboiled, then dried, making it a quick-cooking product. The health food store is your best bet for locating this form of barley.

Barley Flakes

Barley Flakes, Pressed Barley or Rolled Barley have the appearance of rolled oats and are often included in muesli-type cereals. Since barley flakes are a favorite grain of the Japanese and Koreans, they can often be found at Asian markets, as well as health food markets.

Barley Flour is hulled barley that is finely ground and has a lightness and delicate sweetness. Since barley has such a low-gluten content, it is frequently blended with other flours in baking. Health food markets are likely to stock barley flour.


It’s always best to store grains in airtight containers. Unrefrigerated, barley will keep for six to nine months. If the grains are stored in the refrigerator, they will keep several months longer.


Barley can be used in place of rice in almost any dish. For convenience you may want to cook a large quantity to have on hand for different recipes. Reheating takes only a few minutes.

The cooking method for all forms of barley is the same–only the cooking times vary. Combine barley, water and salt in a heavy saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Turn heat to low and simmer until grains are soft and all liquid is absorbed.

To shorten the cooking times, soak the barley overnight for cooking in the morning, or soak all day for cooking the barley at dinnertime.


Whole-grain hulled barley is ideal for soups that often simmer on the stovetop for a couple of hours. Add some beans, vegetables and seasonings for a hearty meal. Pearl barley will work equally as well and requires a shorter cooking time.

Barley combined with vegetables, potatoes, dill and a variety of dried mushrooms, blend together to create a richly flavored Mushroom Barley Soup. Top off this soup with a dollop of sour cream.


Barley grits make a quick breakfast that delivers a wholesome dish in practically no time. Follow the directions on the package for the barley grits, then add a topping of chopped fresh fruits, a sprinkle of cinnamon, some chopped nuts, a little milk and a sweetener, if desired.

This breakfast cereal comes together even more quickly with leftover cooked barley. Simply reheat the barley by adding 2 or 3 tablespoons of water to the pot, cover, and warm over medium heat for about 4 to 6 minutes. Then create your own toppings with a dash of cinnamon, raisins, nuts and seeds, a little maple syrup and your favorite milk.


Leftover cooked barley, either hulled, pearl or barley flakes make the perfect base to build a salad. Add some chopped tomatoes, thinly sliced sweet onions, trimmed snap peas, sweet corn, minced garlic and chopped basil leaves. Dress it with some extra virgin olive oil, lemon or lime juice and salt and pepper to taste.

Other combinations work equally as well. Choose your favorite crunchy veggies or even leftover steamed or roasted vegetables, such as broccoli, peppers, zucchini or carrots.


While the barley is simmering, saute some chopped onions and minced garlic. Simply add these along with herbs to your cooked barley and season according to taste.


Barley Primavera: Create your own original Barley Primavera just as you would with pasta. While the barley is cooking, saute chopped vegetables, add seasonings to taste and prepare your favorite sauce. For each serving, mound the barley on the center of the plate, top with some sautéed vegetables and finish with the sauce. The sauce could be a marinara, oil and garlic or a creamy white sauce. A light sprinkle of toasted nuts or seeds adds an appealing touch.

Stuffed Vegetables: Barley is an ideal grain for stuffing vegetables. Try stuffing cabbage, peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, acorn squash or even Japanese pumpkin (kabocha squash). To the barley, add sauteed chopped vegetables, nuts or chopped, browned sausage and dried herbs. Season to taste and bake about 25 to 30 minutes at 350 degrees F.

Barley Risotto: Pearl barley makes an excellent creamy risotto. The timing will vary with barley. For risotto, use only the pearl barley. The hulled barley will not break down into a creamy state like pearl barley.


Barley Pudding: Make a barley pudding, much like you would make a rice pudding. Add sweetening, spices and dried fruits. Prepare a fruit sauce by pureeing your favorite fruits in the processor with a touch of sweetening and a squeeze of lemon and use that as a topping.

Some Springtime Barley Recipes

Barley Salad

6-8 servings


For the barley:

  • 12 ounces pearl barley
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 Spanish onion, cut in half
  • 2 garlic cloves, whole
  • 2 celery sticks
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 4 cups (32 ounces) water

For the salad:

  • 1 medium carrot, thinly julienned
  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 10 baby tomatoes, cut in half
  • 4 tablespoons chopped parsley or cilantro
  • Red and green leaf lettuce

For the dressing:

  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons apple vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1/2 red onion, small dice
  • 1/3 cup olive oil


For the barley:

Rinse barley. In a large pot, combine barley and 32 ounces fresh water. Add carrot, onion, garlic, celery, and salt. Simmer covered at medium-high heat for 30 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Discard the vegetables and drain the barley. Let the barley cool and place in a glass bowl.

For the salad:

In a glass bowl, mix together the barley, julienned carrots, scallions, tomatoes and parsley.

For the dressing:

In a smaller glass bowl, add all ingredients for the vinaigrette, except for the oil, and mix well. Drizzle in the olive oil as you whisk. Dress the salad. This salad tastes even better if you let it rest for 1-2 hours.

Serve over red and green leaf lettuces.

Springtime Vegetable Barley

This dish makes an excellent side for grilled meats or fish. It can also be served as a vegetarian main meal.

4 servings


  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 cup quick-cooking barley
  • 2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth, divided
  • 1/2 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 tablespoons shredded Parmesan cheese


In a large skillet, saute onion and carrot in butter until crisp-tender. Stir in the barley; cook and stir for 1 minute. Stir n 1 cup broth. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover, cook and stir until liquid is absorbed.

Add asparagus. Cook for 15-20 minutes or until barley is tender and liquid is absorbed, stirring occasionally. Add more broth as needed. Stir in marjoram and pepper; sprinkle with cheese. 

Barley Sausage Stuffed Peppers

4 servings


  • 4 large green peppers
  • 1/2 pound Italian Sausage, casing removed
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 to 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 can (8 ounces) tomato sauce
  • 3 cups cooked barley
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper


Cut tops off peppers; remove seeds. In a large kettle, blanch peppers in boiling water for 3 minutes. Drain and rinse in cold water; set aside.

In a skillet over medium heat, cook sausage, onion and garlic until onion is tender and sausage is no longer pink; drain. Stir in tomato sauce, barley, thyme, salt and pepper; heat through.

Spoon into peppers; place in an ungreased 8-in. square baking dish. Cover and bake at 350°F. for 25-30 minutes or until peppers are tender and filling is hot.

Barley Risotto with Eggplant and Tomatoes

4 servings (serving size: 1 1/4 cups risotto


  • 6 cups  diced (1/2-inch) eggplant
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, divided
  • 5 cups reduced sodium chicken broth
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion
  • 1 cup uncooked pearl barley
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (2 ounces) crumbled feta or cubed mozzarella cheese
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh basil
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted


Preheat oven to 400°F.

Combine eggplant, tomatoes, 2 tablespoons oil and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a bowl; toss to coat. Arrange mixture in a single layer on a jelly-roll pan. Bake for 20 minutes or until tomatoes begin to collapse and eggplant is tender.

Combine broth and 2 cups water in a medium saucepan; bring to a simmer (do not boil). Keep warm over low heat.

Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion to pan; sauté 4 minutes or until onion begins to brown. Stir in pearl barley and garlic; cook 1 minute. Add wine; cook 1 minute or until liquid almost evaporates, stirring constantly.

Add 1 cup broth mixture to pan; bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook 5 minutes or until liquid is nearly absorbed, stirring constantly. Add remaining broth mixture, 1 cup at a time, stirring constantly until each portion of broth mixture is absorbed before adding the next (about 40 minutes total).

Gently stir in eggplant mixture, remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper and salt. Top with cheese, basil and nuts.

Barley-Stuffed Tomatoes

6 servings


  • 6 large tomatoes
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3/4 cups pearl barley
  • 2 1/4 cups water
  • 3 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped green bell pepper
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped green onion
  • Additional pecan halves, for garnish


Cut tops from tomatoes. Scoop out pulp and reserve to use in soups or sauces. Sprinkle centers of tomatoes with salt and pepper. Invert tomatoes on paper towels to drain.

In a medium saucepan with lid, bring water, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon butter to boil. Add barley and return to boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook 45 minutes or until barley is tender and liquid is absorbed.

In a small skillet, sauté chopped pecans in remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Add pecans to cooked barley along with chopped bell pepper and green onion. Fill tomatoes with barley mixture.

Place filled tomatoes close together in baking pan. Add 1/4 cup water to pan. Cover with foil and bake at 375° F for 20 minutes. Garnish each tomato with a pecan half, if desired, and serve.


Barley Flour Drop Biscuits

Makes 10-12 biscuits depending on how large you form them.


  • 1 tablespoon dry yeast
  • ¼ cup lukewarm water
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 ¼ cups barley flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1 beaten egg


Soften dry yeast in lukewarm water, add honey and allow mixture to set for approximately 15 minutes, or until frothy.

Combine barley flour and salt and, with two knives or pastry blender, cut butter into the dry ingredients.

Combine buttermilk and egg and beat slightly, then stir into the flour mixture.

Add yeast mixture, mix thoroughly and let the whole mixture stand for 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Drop dough by tablespoon onto a greased baking sheet.

Pat into 2-inch rounds and bake in preheated oven for 15 to 18 minutes, or until nicely browned.