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The scoop on barley.

Emma Stirling
Emma Stirling APD

As new age, but ‘ancient’ grains like spelt and quinoa take over, it’s easy to forget traditional, tried-and-true players like barley – one of the oldest cultivated cereals. But if you need to watch your BGLs or want to lower the GI of your diet, you should definitely be backing barley. Rich in protein, high in cholesterol-lowering soluble fibre (beta-glucan) and packed with essential nutrients like B vitamins, pearled barley also has a very low GI (25).

Barley shopping basket The barley we buy in the supermarket is usually in the form of pearled barley and is not technically a wholegrain. ‘Pearling’ is an abrasive process which causes some loss of the outer bran layer, but still leaves a highly nutritious grain. Wholegrain barley does exist, it can be found in products labeled as ‘whole’, ‘wholegrain’ or ‘scotch’ barley in which the grain undergoes a different process to ensure all three layers – the bran, germ and endosperm – are maintained.

You’ll also find (but not low GI):
Barley flour – made by grinding the barley ‘pearls’. In the Middle East and Africa, barley flour is blended with wheat flour to produce breads or is ground and cooked as porridge.
Barley grits – are chopped grains with a shorter cooking time used in casseroles, hamburgers, soups, stews and as an ingredient in breakfast cereals.
Barley flakes – are barley grains that have been soaked to soften before being added to baked products. They may also be used to make porridge, milk puddings and breakfast cereals.
Malted barley – is used in the production of alcoholic beverages such as beer and whisky and as a flavouring agent for cereal breakfast foods and for malted milk.

How to embrace barley? So you like the idea of backing barley, but you’re not sure where to start? Try waking up to a warming breakfast porridge with barley or in Australia look for a cereal with BarleyMax – the CSIRO’s naturally modified barley grain. Or add barley to soups, stews and pilafs or grain-based salads (switch it for freekeh in my Hot smoked salmon nicoise). But the easiest way to raise the profile of barley on your plate is to use it instead of rice as a side dish or rice-based dish like Johanna’s Barley risotto with mushrooms and thyme.

Barley risotto

Cook it, store it Steaming pearl barley takes a little longer than steaming white rice, but the method is similar (and super easy if you have a rice cooker). For the stovetop method, place 1 cup (200g/7oz) well rinsed barley in a saucepan with 3 cups (750ml) water and bring to the boil. Cover and reduce heat. Simmer gently for around 35–40 minutes or until the grains are tender but still a little chewy (al dente like pasta). Remove from the heat and leave to stand for a few minutes before fluffing the grains with a fork and serving. If you cook a large batch, freeze leftovers in small batches for up to 6 months. How easy is that?

Emma Stirling is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and health writer with over ten years experience writing for major publications. She is editor of The Scoop on Nutrition – a blog by expert dietitians. Check it out for hot news bites and a healthy serve of what’s in flavour.