Saturday, August 15, 2009

Great grain almighty: Plant a halo on hulled barley

More than likely, you have vague childhood memories of barley as a bland, pasty grain floating around a bowl of soup. That barley looked and tasted like it was flattened by a steamroller, and basically it had been. The not-quite-idyllic barley of your youth was pearl barley.

“Pearl barley refers to covered barley that has been processed to remove the tough, inedible outer hull and then pearled or polished,” says the National Barley Foods Council.

The pearling process removes the bran and endosperm, so pearl barley isn’t a whole grain. Mom was duped into believing that pearl barley was the best barley on offer. Learn from her mistake.

Sold practically everywhere, pearl barley is a better nutritional option than white rice. But pearl barley is a pale imitation of its plump, golden, chewy, satisfying, and nutritionally super-sized sibling: hulled barley.

With hulled barley, only that inedible outer shell is removed, leaving behind all the whole-grain goodness. And it’s a lot of goodness. One-quarter cup of uncooked hulled barley, which is about 1/2 cup cooked, has approximately 163 calories, 34 grams of carbohydrates, 8 g fiber (soluble and insoluble), 6 g protein, 1 g fat, 10% of daily iron requirements, 2% of calcium, and appreciable levels of thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, manganese, and selenium. (For full nutritional stats, visit Nutrition Data.)

There are a lot of bewildering stove-top recipes for cooking hulled barley that require overnight soaking and strange liquid to grain ratios (e.g., 4 cups liquid to 1 cup barley). The confusion may be due to the fact that two types of whole-grain barley exist:
  • Hulled (covered barley with the tough outer shell removed), and
  • Hulless or hull-less (a barley with a loose outer hull that basically falls off). This variety appears to require more water and a longer cooking time.
I use hulled, so I’ll share my basic guidelines for that. If you end up with hull-less, check out the cooking tips at the National Barley Foods Council.

The short barley grains pair nicely with sticky rice, so I often cook ½ cup of hulled barley and ½ cup of Lundberg Farms Short-Grain Brown Rice or Brown Sweet Rice. I follow the cooking directions for the rice.

If I want my grains less sticky, I sauté them in a teaspoon of olive or almond oil first. If not, I just dump the 1 cup of grains in a pot with a generous 2 cups of water, bring that to a boil, slap a lid on, and reduce the heat to medium/medium-low. Depending on how long I let the grains boil before reducing the heat, cooking time will be 35 to 45 minutes. Then I turn off the heat and let the pot stand, lid on, for 10 minutes before I fluff the grains with a fork. I usually cook enough for one week (refrigerate it) or one month (freeze it).

If I want “stick-free” grains, I often combine hulled barley with medium-grain Lundberg Golden Rose Brown Rice. I boil the grains like pasta for 35-45 minutes in a big stockpot of water, drain in a colander, and fluff after about 10 minutes.

If you’d like an actual recipe, Alton Brown of Food Network fame tells how to bake hulled barley:

Search out hulled barley in the bulk foods section of a natural/organic grocery or health food store. In Asheville, I buy it at Earth Fare for under $2 a pound. You can also order it on-line (e.g., hulled at Amazon and hull-less at Bob’s Red Mill).

The reward is worth any hassle.

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