How to Cook Barley 

Barley is maybe one of the most under-used grains in the kitchen. When you think of barley you may only think of beer brewing or enjoying in a soup when in fact it has a wide range of uses! Knowing how to cook barley is the first step in enjoying it.

Once cooked, barley has a very nice chewy texture and light nutty flavor. It holds up really well in sauces, soups, casseroles and stews. Even by itself with proper seasoning it makes a great side dish akin to quinoa or rice. We will take a look at a few facts you should know about barley and how to cook it a couple easy ways.

What is Barley?

Barley is one of the oldest cultivated whole grains in the world. Coveted for its resilience to different growing climates, it has become a staple ingredient in many international cuisines.

Considered a true cereal grain, it is from the same grain family as wheat. Worldwide production of barley puts it in the fourth spot of largest crops, just behind corn. It is an incredibly resilient plant, making it suitable to grow in the widest range out of any cereal crop. The largest producers of barley are Germany, France and Russia.

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Aside from its easy growing, barley is very nutritious and high in fiber. This is why people have enjoyed it for thousands of years. There are two different versions of barley you may find at your grocery store. They vary in appearance, taste and cooking requirements.

Pearl Barley

raw pearl barley close up

Pearl barley is what you are most familiar with in soups and sides. It has a light cream color and is the most common type of barley found in your grocery store. Pearl barley is the result of the outer layer of bran being removed, leaving just the inner grain.

Pearl barley is technically not a whole grain, since it is lacking its outer bran layer. Still, it retains a good amount of fiber and nutrients. The lack of the outer bran layer does result in faster cooking times.

Hulled Barley

raw hulled barley

Hulled barley or barley ‘groats’ is the whole grain version. It is easy to spot as it has a distinctly brown color as compared with pearl barley.

Considered to be a true whole grain with its outer bran layer intact. Expect it to be chewier with a slightly nuttier taste than pearl barley. Longer cooking times are to be expected as well.

When shopping for hulled barley, it can be labelled under the terms ‘whole, hulled or hulless’. Usually found in the bulk section of health-oriented retailers like Whole Foods or Nature’s Fare.

How to Cook Barley

Cooking barley can be compared very closely to cooking rice. Typically you will simmer barley on the stovetop in either water or stock. Depending on your preference between pearl barley or hulled, cooking times will be roughly 30-60 minutes. Important to note that hulled barley will take approximately 20 minutes longer to cook than pearl barley.

Barley is fairly filling, and when portioning aim to cook about a half cup per person. Cooked barley will roughly triple in size from its raw form. A single cup of uncooked barley will yield about 3 cups cooked!

Cooking Pearl Barley on Stovetop

Prep Time: 5 minCook Time: 30 – 40 min
note: 1 cup uncooked barley will yield 3 cups cooked.
  1. Measure 1 cup of barley, rinse under cold water and drain.
  2. Place in sauce pot, cover with 2 1/2 cups of water or stock/broth.
  3. Add 1 tsp salt (optional).
  4. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
  5. After 25 minutes check to see it is not dried out and if more cooking is required.
  6. Let barley stand uncovered for 5 minutes, fluff with fork and serve.

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Cooking Hulled Barley on Stovetop

Prep Time: 20 minCook Time: 50 – 60 min
note: it is best to soak hulled barley before cooking to reduce cook time.
  1. Measure out 1 cup of barley and cover with water. Let soak for 20 min before cooking.
  2. Drain soaked barley and place in sauce pot.
  3. Cover with 2 1/2 cups of water or stock/broth.
  4. Add 1 tsp salt (optional).
  5. Bring pot to boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 45 minutes.
  6. After 40 minutes check to see that it still has moisture and add more stock/water if needed.
  7. Cook for additional 10-20 minutes until tender.
  8. Let barley stand uncovered for 5 minutes, fluff with fork and serve.

Cooking Barley in the Oven

Prep Time: 15 minCook Time: 35 – 60 min
note: use a high rimmed pot or dutch oven as barley can boil/foam over
  1. Preheat your oven to 375F.
  2. Rinse 1 cup of barley (pearl or hulled) and let soak for 15 minutes in water.
  3. Heat up 3 cups of water or stock in microwave or pot till hot.
  4. Drain soaked barley, and transfer into baking dish with high sides.
  5. Add hot water/stock and 1 tsp of salt.
  6. Cover your baking dish with lid or aluminum foil and carefully place in the preheated oven.
  7. Bake barley for 30 min (pearl barley) or 50 min (hulled barley). Check for desired texture, cook for additional 5 minutes if needed.
  8. Remove from oven, season and serve!

How Do I Serve Barley?

The most popular way to serve barley is an addition to soups. The characteristics of the grain, especially pearl barley, give the soup or stew a thick creamy texture. Barley adds a heartiness to a dish as it is quite filling.

Another great way to serve barley is as a side, just like you would rice or quinoa. Choose pearl or hulled barley, both will give you a great side dish with the proper seasonings. Hulled barley will be chewier than pearl barley and with a stronger nutty taste. Pearl barley releases starches into the dish once cooked. This allows for an easy risotto-like side dish with a little cooking technique!

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