Barley: A Low-Gluten & Nourishing but Forgotten Grain in the American Diet



by Cat, Nov 2008 (photo, right, from Wikimedia Commons)

See also: Barley BrowniesBarley Water & OrgeatUses of Cereal Grains, an Overview

This article includes the following topics: 1. Health Benefits of Barley; 2. Commercial Forms of Barley; 3. Sprouting Barley; 4. Cooked Barley & Cooking Time Table; 5. Barley Porridge

Barley is one of the oldest cereal grains.  It is used in making beer (barley malt), bread and gruel.  The Greeks valued barley’s ability to give physical strength and mental alertness.  It is one of the few grains that can be grown above the Arctic circle.

Uses for Barley

Barley Water is a thin porridge made of barley, is easy to digest, and a tonic to the liver (1). Orgeat is a French version of barley water, flavored with almonds and orange flowers.

Malted barley is basically sprouted (germinated) barley that has been dried in a process called ‘malting,’ which is basically drying with hot air, and it halts the germination process. (8)

The main use of malted barley is in making beer.  There has been much speculation about how beer was first discovered.  A logical explanation is that sprouted grains were baked in the hot sun of the middle east, to make bread.  Perhaps a loaf of bread got wet from rain, and produced a beverage of interesting flavor and effect (7).

Malted barley is also used to make a natural sweetener available in many natural food stores.

Adding barley sprouts to soup not only adds nutritional benefits, but also will improve its flavor.  Barley is high in fiber; in fact, barley has more fiber than oats (1 cup barley provides 13.6 grams fiber; 1 cup oats provides 3.98 grams fiber).  Barley is also a good source of selenium (a mineral important for liver function), phosphorus, copper and manganese, but only after sprouting or soaking (to release the minerals from the phytates) (4). 

See Vegetarians in Paradise (5) for great description of the history of barley and much more, including cooking ideas and recipes.

Health Benefits of Barley

The fiber in barley helps regulate blood sugar levels, an important factor for diabetics.  A study by the Agricultural Research Service at the Diet and Human Performance Laboratory in Maryland found that barley was much more effective at reducing both glucose and insulin responses than oats.  However, it  is important to note that pearled barley is devoid of most of this important fiber (4).

Barley’s fiber is high in beta-glucan, a soluble fiber important for lowering cholesterol levels, but it also includes insoluble fibers which serve as food for the body’s probiotic colonies (4).

Like most grains, barley is high in niacin, an important B-vitamin.  1 cup of barley provides 14.2% of the daily requirement for niacin (4).

Refer to The Worlds Healthiest Foods (, (4)) for more on the health benefits of barley.

Commercial Forms of Barley

Barley has a very tough fibrous hull.  This is usually removed before using the grain.  When the hull is left on, it is called “hulled barley,” when removed, it is properly called “dehulled barley.”  This difference in naming is often misused.  Often “hulled barley” is used to indicate barley with the hull removed, so it can be confusing, but you can usually tell what is meant by considering the entire context (2,3).

Dehulled barley still contains the bran and germ, and resembles wheat berries, but a bit lighter in color.  Flaked barley is made by flattening dehulled barley, and can be used to make hot cereal, similar to rolled oats.  However, when using de-hulled barley, be sure to sprout it first, to make it’s nutrients easier to digest.

While ‘pearled barley’ is the most widely available form, it is nutritionally inferior to the whole grain, because like white rice, it has been stripped of the nutrient rich outer bran layer by polishing the grain. Still, pearled barley is rich in protein and fiber.

Scotch barley is slightly less refined than pearled barley, and retains some of the bran. (5)

Cracked barley (barley grits) is de-hulled barley processed similar to bulgur: cracked, roasted, parboiled and dried, to make a quick-cooking product.  Or you can make this at home by sprouting and drying.

Malted barley is dehulled barley that has been allowed to sprout.  It can then be flaked for use as a cereal (similar to rolled oats), or ground into flour.  Malted barley is the most nutritious and easily digested form of barley.

Sprouting Barley

Requires de-hulled barley (not ‘pearled’ barley); also toasted barley does not sprout well.  Refer to Sprouting Grains, Legumes, Nuts & Seeds for details.  Rinse 2 – 3 times daily.  The sprouts are tiny and white, and will be ready in 2 – 4 days.

Once sprouted, the barley can be dried and ground into flour, eaten as whole sprouts, or cooked into casseroles, soups or stews.  Use sprouted barley in recipes such as Oxtail Barley Soup, Beef & Barley soup, Scotch Broth (8), and Chicken and Barley soup.

Barley can also be roasted in the oven, then soaked at least 7 hours,1 and while it probably won’t sprout, the soaking does provide some of the benefits of sprouting.

Cooked Barley

Both sprouted barley and pearled barley have a shorter cooking time than de-hulled barley.  While sprouted barley is far more nutritious than pearled barley, it does take 2-4 days to sprout, so you have to plan ahead.

Pearled barley cooks in 30 – 60 minutes.  Use 2-3 cups water per cup of pearled barley, to make 3 1/2 cups cooked barley (6 servings)

De-hulled barley (“Hulled” in the table below) cooks in an hour or more, if not sprouted.  You can shorten cooking time by simply soaking the barley overnight, and then cook in the soaking liquid.  Use about 3-4 cups water per cup of barley.

Sprouted barley cooks in about 30 minutes.  Use about 1/2 cup water per cup of sprouts.

The following table is from Vegetarians in Paradise website (6). Note that “hulled” barley in the table is really ‘de-hulled’ (with hull removed but bran and germ in-tact).

Barley-Cooking Table

Barley Porridge

A good cereal similar to oatmeal can be made from flaked barley, but malted (sprouted) flaked barley has more nutrition and is easier to digest than barley that has not been malted.  If malted flaked barley is not available, you can soak the flaked barley overnight (similar to soaking  oatmeal). See Plain Porridge for details.

Barley Water & Orgeat

Moved to Barley Water & Orgeat. Barley water is a thin, drinkable porridge; Orgeat is the French version flavored with almonds and orange blossoms.


  1. Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon, with Mary G. Enig
  7. Edible Missoula magazine, Fall 2008
  9. Scotch Broth recipe:

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