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How to Cook Barley: From Stew to Celebrated Brew

Barley Beef Soup to Celebrated Brew A Long Winding Road

Barley is one of the most underrated grains in the culinary repertoire. I love using barley for many applications – this versatile grain is great with lamb, or added to your favorite stew. Barley has a long history with human agricultural existence; we’ve used this once wild grass in so many ways throughout the centuries, and I wanted to dive into the benefits of this ancient grain and explore creative ways how to cook barley.

How to Cook Barley: The Crown Jewel

Pearl Barley is the most common form of barley that we consume – it’s hulled, polished, and has a nutty aroma and flavor, and is similar to wheat in caloric, protein, vitamin, and mineral content. Pearl barley is simple to prepare and typically softer than normal barley. It also contains more starch, making it a great thickener for soups and stews. I like to purchase barley in bulk, as it’s usually cheaper, and tends to be of better quality.


  • 1 1/2 C of Pearl Barley 
  • 4 C Stock
  • 1 Shallot (Finely Minced)
  • 1 Bunch of Thyme
  • 2 Tbl Olive Oil
  • 1 Tbl Kosher Salt 
  • 6 qt Heavy Bottomed Stainless Sauce Pot 


  1. Heat your saucepan on medium, and add the olive oil. 
  2. Once olive oil starts to shine and move rapidly in the pan, add your barley and toast stirring often to coat the grain.
  3. 2-3 minutes of toasting should release a beautiful nutty aroma. Add your shallots and salt and sweat for 1 min. 
  4. Add your stock and a tied bundle of thyme to the pot, stir to release any barley that may have stuck to the bottom of the pan.
  5. Bring to a simmer and cover, the starch from the barley may start to boil over, you can remove it with a ladle. 
  6. Check the tenderness around 20 min, until the desired texture is reached. You can add more water and continue to cook if it’s not quite done.
  7. Remove the thyme bundle and discard, strain the excess barley water, I like to save it for a nutritious beverage.

Barley Fermentation

The fermentation of barley was one of the greatest discoveries of early man. It’s deeply ingrained in our society today and is impossible to escape in our modern cuisine. Barley is used in many applications today, including, bread, stews, and even health products. Evidence of this early man’s discovery was recorded on stone tablets in Mesopotamia, depicting people sharing a fermented barley beverage in a communal bowl. The earliest indications of barley fermentation date back some 13,000 years, with signs pointing to the fermented beverage being the consistency of gruel. The Sumerians used straws to avoid solids that are often bitter, necessary to the production of early beers. Twice-baked barley bread called “Bappir” was used exclusively for this process. They also realized that reusing the same brewing vessel produced the best results and consistency, like how a well-seasoned cast-iron pan creates and layers flavor over time with each additional use.

Early Egyptians, including Pharaohs, learned how to cook barley, and it was used in religious rituals and celebrations. Like the Sumerians, their beverage utilized a barley bread. Builders of the Great Pyramids of Giza were said to have a daily ration of barley beer, which was a source of nutrition and refreshment.

Barley Cultivation

Barley: A Jack of All Trades

A highly versatile and resilient crop, early man domesticated barley for many purposes. As one of the first crops grown in The Fertile Crescent, it spread throughout Eurasia to Persia and India, with every culture utilizing the grain in different ways. In ancient Greece, they learned how to cook barley beverages with herbs, and it was fed to armies and nobles alike. The barley groats (hulled kernels) were dried out before being roasted for a portage, producing a malted flavor full of sustaining nutrients. 

In Tibet, barley has been prevalent since the 5th century, drying and grinding it into flour. Tsampa is a widely eaten convenience food eaten by sherpas, nomads, and travelers alike. The process of making tsampa involves mixing ground, roasted barley flour with butter tea (yaks milk, tea leaves, salt). Starting with a bit of butter tea in a bowl and a mound of tsampa flour, they gently mix it as a “dough” forms, adjusting for the right consistency. 

During Buddhist rituals and celebrations of the new year, tsampa is thrown in the air as an offering, and usually includes chanting, wishes of fortune, and luck in the new year. Also used for medicinal purposes, tsampa is mixed with cumin and placed over an aching tooth. Tsampa is commonly used for the common cold and other infections in Tibet. 

During WWII the import of coffee was heavily restricted, and as a result, Italians would substitute coffee for a barley beverage known as caffè d’orzo, prepared like espresso sans the caffeine. Roasted barley grounds were a popular substitute and seem to be making a resurgence in modern-day Italy. Over fifteen specialty roasters throughout Italy create small-batch roasted barley grounds for cafes and the numbers are growing.

How To Cook Barley Into Beer

The process of beer production starts with soaking barley in water until the grain germinates. Once germinated, it’s laid out in a drying process for the hull to crack, exposing what brewmasters call malt. Malt is then soaked, once again in warm water to release enzymes in the grain, converting the carbohydrates to sugar, essential to creating alcohol in beer. This liquid is what is referred to as “sweet liquor”.   

This “Sweet Liquor” is then boiled with hops to create the basis of beer. As the mixture cools, a special strain of yeast is added, thus beginning the fermentation process. The yeast works hard converting the sugars to alcohol, fermentation ranges from 2-10 days at 40°-70°F. The yeast is filtered out and is either pasteurized or aged depending on the style of beer. Although other grains are used for beer production, barley is the most common and malted barley lends its color to beer as well as flavor. 

Barley Brewery

Does Barley Need to be Soaked?

Soaking barley can not only reduce the cooking time significantly, but remarkably also has added health benefits when soaked. When hulled barley is soaked in warm water overnight enzymes and compounds are activated. This process helps the body break down the complex proteins and absorb the minerals in hulled barley. Pearl barley has already been released of its shell, and breaks down in our bodies easily.

Though there are many benefits to soaking, I don’t typically use this method. I usually prefer to toast all my grains – soaking them adds water to the kernel, and they tend to steam, rather than release that beautifully nutty flavor. I recommend trying both methods out for yourself and figuring out which you prefer. 

Quinoa vs. Barley

Barley is a super grain packed full of vitamins, minerals, and protein. With all the benefits of barley, I wanted to look and compare them to quinoa. Quinoa gets so much attention and is on almost every menu these days. So which super grain is better for you and why? I break it down below: 


Quinoa has been all the rage as of the past few years. It’s advertised as a super-food and production of quinoa exploded onto the food landscape. Though quinoa isn’t a grain its thought of as a whole grain. 

  • 72% of quinoa is water  
  • 21% being carbohydrates
  • 4% protein
  • Low in fat and high in fiber 
  • Complete protein source
  • High in amino acids 
  • Gluten-free Not gluten-free


Barley is considered a Whole grain in its hulled form. Whole grains are known to possess many health benefits including less risk of cancer development and diabetes. 

  • High in fiber and protein
  • Riboflavin which helps cell growth 
  • Folic acid benefits the metabolism
  •  Potassium, zinc, and copper
  • Helps lower cholesterol
  • Improves blood sugar control 
  • Not gluten-free

Ultimately, both quinoa and barley are very good for you. The added benefits of quinoa being gluten-free and packed full of amino acids may give it a slight edge. I prefer barley for flavor, protein boost and the versatility of the grain.

If you’d like to learn more about how early man cultivated and domesticated wild grasses into the foods we love today.

Check out The Agricultural Revolution and the Impact on our Food