Barley is a really underrated grain that is great for soups, sauces and sides. It has a delicious nutty flavor and is delightfully chewy. Check out how to cook it in a large batch and then freeze in portions for easy meals later!
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So, what is barley?
The barley plant is a member of the grass family and was one of the very first cultivated grains. They have records of it as far back as 10,000 years ago!
Barley is mainly grown for cereal and for brewing, but it is a wonderful whole grain with numerous health benefits. It can be used interchangeably with any other grain you might serve with your dinner, like rice or quinoa.
Does barley need to be soaked before cooking?
Unlike legumes which are hard and need to be soaked overnight before cooking, barley does not need soaking before cooking. It does, however, need a good rinse until the water runs clear. This removes a good bit of the starch and dirt clinging to the grains resulting in a cleaner, better finished product.
What is the difference between barley and pearl barley?
There are two types of barley that you will find in the store.
- Hulled Barley (aka Dehulled Barley)
This form of barley has had the tough outer hull of the grain removed but still leaves the bran, which means it still qualifies as a whole food. This type of barley takes longer to cook than pearl barley and is darker in color.
- Pearl Barley
This form of barley has been so processed and polished that all hull and bran have been removed from each grain, leaving a lighter in color and smoother in finish grain. A lot of the nutritional value that barley inherently has is removed in this process, meaning this form of barley is not technically a whole food.
That said, it’s still a very healthy food, as some of the bran may remain and it’s much better for you than other grains because some of the bran is distributed throughout each kernel.
How long does it take to cook barley?
In my opinion, this detail depends on how you like your barley and what you intend to do with it.
Hulled barley could be cooked for as long as 90 minutes, but I enjoy the chewiness of this grain and don’t like to overcook it. I tend to cook it for 45-55 minutes if I’m going to eat it straight away, but this cooking time works well if you plan to freeze it after it’s cooled, too.
Since pearl barley has had the bran almost completely removed, it will cook much quicker. Pearl barley could be cooked as long as 45-60 minutes, but just like above, I tend to undercook barley so that it still has that delightful toothy-ness. I cook pearl barley for 25-30 minutes.
How to Cook Barley and Freeze For Later
Step 1 - Rinse and combine with water in pot
Barley is what I like to call “dusty” when you first bring it home. When you rinse it you will see how cloudy the water gets. That’s a mixture of starch that naturally occurs on the barley grains and some dirt. You want to rinse repeatedly until the water pretty much runs clear.
Then put the barley in a pot at the ratio of 1 cup barley to 2 1/2 cups water. Cover and bring to a simmer.
Step 2 - Cook until tender but not mushy
As I mentioned above, I enjoy barley when it’s still pretty chewy but obviously cooked enough to eat. The way I like to eat it happens to be the perfect way to freeze it, because it’s still toothy enough to not become mush when frozen and defrosted.
Cook hulled barley for 45-50 minutes and pearl barley for 25-30 minutes, then let sit with the lid on for 10 minutes.
Step 3 - Cool completely
The quickest and easiest way to cool anything is to spread it in a thin layer. You want to line a baking sheet with parchment paper (for super easy clean up). Then pour the drained barley onto the sheet pan. Use a wooden spoon to spread into one layer and let sit that way until completely cooled.
Do not freeze if not cooled completely! If you do then you will get condensation inside the bag which will turn into water crystals and air pockets. You then risk freezer burn.
Step 4 - Portion into zip top bags or vacuum seal bags
You can freeze barley in one of two ways - the first is to use freezer safe zip top bags. If you do that then you will need to try to squeeze as much air out of it as possible before sealing completely.
The second option, and the superior one, is to use a vacuum sealer and vacuum seal bags.
The reason vacuum sealing is a good idea is because air causes freezer burn. It also makes your frozen food last less time than if it were vacuum sealed.
I use this Vacuum Sealer by NutriChef, and love it! It’s small and portable, but works wonderfully.
The first photo is me making custom bags from a roll of bag material. When you do that, you just cut the size off you want, then you seal one end so that you can add the food you are freezing. Then you vacuum seal the other end.
When vacuum sealing, remember to leave a good 3 inches of space at the top of the bag. You’ll need this extra so that you can put the top in the vacuum sealer and close the lid without getting the food inside the bag.
Step 5 - Seal the bags
The best way to seal a freezer safe zip top bag is to submerge the bag in a bowl of water until just the top is sticking out, then seal the zipper immediately. The water will push almost all of the air out of the bag and give you a pretty tight seal.
Using a vacuum sealer is much easier, of course.
You simply put the open end in the sealer, then close and lock the top. You need to make sure you set the machine for moist food (see the second image below) and then press “vacuum seal” (third image below.)
The trick with cooked food is that you don’t want to smash it during the vacuum part. What I do is watch closely and when it looks like most of the air has been sucked out but the food is not yet squished, you just press the “seal” button, and the machine will immediately stop vacuuming.
You can also set the machine to “gentle” mode if that makes you feel better.
Step 6 - Admire your handiwork and freeze for up to 3 months
Look at that beauty, just waiting to be useful in a last minute effort to serve your family home cooked, whole food goodness.
What do you serve with barley?
Barley is an excellent substitute to rice or quinoa in any dish! Try serving it with curries, a stir fry, anything saucy like broccoli beef or orange chicken…. the possibilities are endless! Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Chickpea Curry with Cabbage
- Creamy Paleo Coconut Lime Skillet Chicken
- Slow Cooker Curried Chicken and Cabbage
- Teriyaki Chicken and Veggies - Sheet Pan Meal
- Paleo Cranberry Chicken for the Instant Pot
- Skillet Artichoke Chicken with Carrot Puree
HERE ARE SOME AWESOME BARLEY RECIPES FROM OTHER GREAT FOOD BLOGGERS!
- Cauliflower & Barley Risottos
- Pearl Barley Salad with Chickpeas, Feta and Lemon
- Warm Barley Beetroot Salad
- White Bean and Barley Salad with Greek Vinaigrette
- Cinnamon Apple Breakfast Barley