This article covers everything you need to know about how to cook barley for a satisfying whole-grain side dish any night of the week.
How do you cook barley? Rinse it, add it with water in a saucepan, and simmer it for 20 minutes for pearled barley ir 40 minutes for hulled barley, and serve!
If you have a little bit of time but don’t feel like cooking something overly time-consuming or elaborate, making a simple but satisfying pot of barley is the right choice for you!
What is Barley?
While barley is a grain that is part of the grass family. It’s grown around the world. When you purchase barley, it comes in small, light brown kernels that look similar to farro or brown rice. The grains are rounder and plumper than rice grains and smaller than farro.
Barley is commonly eaten on its own as a side dish or base for other dishes. It can also be used to brew alcohol. Specifically, whiskey is a distilled alcohol made by fermenting grains including barley.
Is Barley Gluten-Free?
No, barley contains 5 to 8% gluten. Anyone with a gluten allergy, celiac disease or who is avoiding gluten for other reasons should not eat barley. Instead, substitute barley with a gluten-free grain such as rice or quinoa. For this reason, certain whiskeys are also gluten-containing, so always check the label for barley if you’re avoiding gluten.
What’s the difference between pearl barley and pot barley?
There a few types of barley that you can buy. The two most common on supermarket shelves in the US are called pearl barley and hulled barley.
The major difference between these two kinds of barley is how they are processed. Hulled barley has a fully intact bran and endosperm, but the tough and most fibrous outer hull has been removed. The hull is not edible, but the two layers underneath contain most of the nutrients in the grain. Hulled barley is light brown and has a stronger nutty flavor and chewier, more toothsome texture than pearl barley.
Pearl barley, on the other hand, has gone through a polishing process to chip away at some of the grain’s bran and endosperm. This removes some of the nutrients from the grains and also makes pearled barley faster cooking. It’s lighter in color than hulled barley and has a softer, less structured texture. Bob’s Red Mill Pearl Barley is a consistently good quality option.
Both types of barley, however, are simple to prepare and offer a healthy, flavorful side dish to nearly any meal.
How to Cook Barley
Once you’ve made your choice between cooking pearl or hulled barley, let’s get into the kitchen and break down the steps to cook barley at home.
- 1 cup of barley (either pearl or pot)
- 3 cups of water
- Salt, to taste
This list of ingredients to cook barley will feed about 4 people. Barley will nearly double in size as it cooks, and one serving is considered 1/2 cup of cooked barley.
Prepping the barley
Step 1: Rinse the barley
Using a bowl and a colander, rinse the barley. Simply place it under running water until the water running out of the colander is clear. This rinses away excess starch that tends to cling to the grains during processing and packaging. You should rinse all of your grains, including rice, farro, and quinoa, like this before cooking.
Step 2: Dry the barley
Remove the excess water by shaking the colander over the sink. This step is not so much about actually drying the grains but more so to remove the excess water and starch from rinsing.
Cook the barley
Step 1: Fill a saucepan with water
Grab a medium-sized saucepan and fill it with three cups of cold water. If you’re wondering what the proper ratio of water to barley is for cooking, the best rule of thumb is 3 cups of water per 1 cup of barley (for both hulled and pearled barley). You can easily double this recipe by cooking 2 cups of barley in 6 cups of water with no change to the cooking time.
Note that barley will produce some foam as it cooks, so be sure to use a pot large enough to accommodate this without overflowing.
Step 2: Add the barley
After the water is in the pan, add a big pinch of salt and the grains. Adding salt at this stage helps season the grains as they cook. While you may still need to adjust the seasoning after cooking, you’ll have a more uniform and tasty flavor if you season from the start.
Step 3: Bring everything to a boil
Next, place the pot over high heat and bring the water to a boil. Prepare for some foam, and reduce the heat as necessary to keep your stove clean.
Step 4: Simmer the barley
Once the water comes to a boil, reduce the heat to a low so the water is at a constant simmer. If you’re cooking pearl barley, simmer the grains for 20 minutes. If you’re using hulled barley, simmer the grains for 40 minutes. Cover the barley while it cooks to prevent too much water evaporation, which can cause the grains to burn on the bottom of the pot.
Step 5: Check the barley and serve
After your cooking time has passed, check the barley grains. If they’re puffy and chewy, it’s time to eat! Otherwise, cook the grains for 5 more minutes and check again. If you feel it’s getting dry, add more water. If there’s excess water in the pot when the grains are done cooking, you can drain the barley like pasta in a fine-mesh strainer.
Then simply plate up your perfectly cooked barley and dig in!
How can you cook barley quickly?
If you don’t have the time to cook barley on the stove, there is a short-cut method if you have a microwave. Bear in mind, the taste and texture won’t be the same. To make short-cut barley, fill a microwave-safe bowl with one cup of pearl barley and 3 cups of water. Microwave the grains on high for 3 minutes. Then fluff the barley it with a fork and microwave for another 4 minutes. The grains should be cooked at this point, but if not, continue to microwave in 2-minute intervals until the barley is cooked, stirring well between each interval for even cooking.
How can you tell when barley is cooked?
There are a few ways to check that your barley is fully cooked. First, visually, the grains will have doubled in size. They should be fluffy looking in the pot. Second, sample a small spoonful of the grains. If they’re easy to eat with a bit of a chewy texture, they’re probably done. In addition, nearly all of the water (if you used the 2:3 barley: water ratio) should be absorbed by the grains.
Can you overcook barley?
Yes, it is possible to overcook barley, although it will certainly take a long time. Keep in mind that cooked barley will be somewhat chewy at first, but you can continue to cook barely if you prefer an even softer, pooridge-like texture.
How to Serve Cooked Barley
Like most grains, barley makes an excellent side dish all on its own. SEre up a plate of nutty perfectly cooked barley alongside a roast chicken with a side of broccoli for a well-rounded dinner. You can also use barley in place of rice in dishes like fried rice, stuffed peppers, or risotto.
If you’re looking to boost the flavor of your grains, know that barley is a fairly blank canvas for nearly any flavoring combination. A simple way to add flavor to your cooked grains is to stir in fresh or dried herbs after they’re cooked. You can also make an easy barley pilaf by sauteing vegetables and aromatics like garlic and mushrooms in the pot before you add the water and grains. these will infuse the barley with flavor as it cooks for a delicious one-pot dish.
How to Cook Barley
- Pot with a lid
- Wooden spoon
- 1 cup barley pearled or hulled
- 3 cups water
- 1 tsp salt
- In a medium pot, bring the barley, water and salt to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 20 mintues for pearled barley and 40 minutes for hulled barley. Check for doneness and serve hot.