With the grain: barley

Categories: Expert guidance

In a new series, chef and demo kitchen regular Jenny Chandler explores cereal grains and offers tips and recipes to get the best of them. This month: barley

Perhaps one of the first cultivated grains on the planet (quite possibly preceding rice to the east), barley was the original staple food crop in the western world, key to the success of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. Barley continues to be the fourth most widely-grown cereal globally, but most is used for animal feed or made into malt, rather than turning up on our plates as a grain.

So, why did barley fall from favour? During the Roman Empire, as bread became an increasingly important part of the daily diet, wheat became more valued by the wealthy. Barley lacks the high gluten levels of wheat, resulting in a less desirable, heavy and dense loaf. Wheat, and even rye breads, keep better too, as barley doesn’t retain moisture well, so stales quickly.

Nevertheless, barley remained the basic grain of the European peasants for well over a thousand years and even continued to be used by the rich for their trenchers (those fabulous edible plates that I’m always dreaming of recreating), well into the 16th century.

Beer and whisky
Eventually, as hardy and highly productive strains of wheat emerged, barley graced our tables less and less. Farmers continued to grow the sturdy crop to feed their livestock, or to be converted to malt by germinating and then drying the kernels. We still, perhaps unwittingly, consume plenty of malted barley: malt vinegar, malted breads, sticky malt loaf, Marmite and, of course, beer and whisky.

Barley kernels continued to be added to gruel, soups and stews, and still are, to this day, in the ever-popular Scotch broth. Sadly, most Scotch broth nowadays seems to be bought in a can and it’s not a patch on the real thing. I can think of nothing more comforting than a slow-cooked soup of good stock, pulses, root veg and pearl barley with, or without, the traditional mutton. In fact, barley is perfect added to any broth-y soup, giving great texture, extra body to fill you up and, rather conveniently, healthy soluble fibre, helping lower your cholesterol.

Now, which barley to buy? Most readily available barley has had the outer husk removed and is then put through the pearling process when the inedible hull is rubbed away. Pot barley is ‘pearled’ quickly, leaving most of the bran intact while the pearl barley kernel is polished further, removing the bran too, making it quicker and easier to cook but not quite as good for the gut.

Wimbledon champions
Pot barley will retain its shape and a bit of bite, ideal in salads and risotto-type dishes; pearl barley becomes soft and creamy, perfect for soups and even a delicious pud, akin to a rice pudding with the addition of milk, honey, currants and vanilla. Pearl barley can be simmered with lemon zest before straining to create that fêted refreshment of Wimbledon champions, lemon barley water.

Nowadays, with the renewed interest in healthy whole grains and the seemingly endless search for alternatives to wheat, long-forgotten strains of barley are beginning to hit the shelves. Naked barley requires no milling (unlike modern barley grown primarily for malting and animal fodder) as it falls from the ear without the inedible hull, giving us an ideal whole grain. Naked barley flakes make excellent granola, porridge, or crumble and are worth experimenting in baked goods too.

Black barley, an Ottolenghi favourite, may be new to us but has been grown for millennia in Ethiopia. Nowadays it’s being cultivated in the USA, too. Sold as a wholegrain with its beautiful, edible black bran coat intact, it’s a rising star in the grain world. Watch out wheat—barley could bite back.

Read Jenny’s recipe for sweet onion, pumpkin & pearl barley broth