My Goals

  • Distinct grains with tender chew

  • Vibrant flavors

If you've only ever used barley to bulk up a brothy soup, consider this your introduction to another hearty grain with great versatility. Like farro, wheat berries, and brown rice, barley is nutty but neutral, so it pairs well with most seasonings and can deliver satisfying chew.

I wanted to feature barley in a handful of simple sides, so I cooked a batch using the absorption method that we commonly use for rice. I soon realized why barley is typically relegated to soup: After I'd simmered 1 cup of barley in 3 cups of water in a covered pot until the grains were tender and had absorbed all the liquid, the barley clumped together, bound by a starchy paste—think gluey oatmeal. Undeterred, I cooked more batches with all the different barleys I could find at the supermarket, and the results were all over the place: Depending on the barley product, the grains took anywhere from 20 minutes to 1 hour to cook and soaked up between 2½ and 4 cups of water.

It turns out that barley has two big strikes against it. Most barley sold in the United States is “pearled”—meaning that the inedible hull has been removed and that the grain has been pearled, or polished. The problem is that depending on the amount of abrasion used during pearling, different amounts of bran (or germ or endosperm) may be left intact. The more bran that is left intact, the more liquid and time barley needs to cook. What's more, barley is prone to releasing starch and clumping.

Treat Barley Like Pasta

Barley is prone to clumping for two reasons: First, its starch granules burst relatively early in the cooking time. Second, the starch is sticky because it’s loaded with amylopectin, the branching molecule that’s responsible for the stickiness of short-grain rices. Boiling barley in a large volume of water, just as you would when cooking pasta, and then draining it prevents clumping because it dilutes the starch in abundant water, which we then drain away.

With this in mind, I turned to the pasta cooking method, in which the barley grains are cooked in a large volume of water and then drained. The cooking times still varied from product to product, but since I could periodically test the grains for doneness, that no longer mattered. Plus, draining the cooking water rid the grains of most of their surface starch, so they remained separate.

To quickly cool and dry the boiled grains, we spread them onto a rimmed baking sheet lined with paper towels.

Before tossing the cooked barley with bold dressings, I spread the grains on a rimmed baking sheet to cool a bit. The cooled barley would be drier and thus less sticky and wouldn't wilt the fresh herbs I planned to combine it with. Once the grains were no longer steaming, I tossed them with a punchy lemon vinaigrette—a 1:1 ratio of oil to lemon juice rather than the typical 3:1 oil-to-acid ratio—to complement their earthy, nutty flavor, and I further brightened the mix with lemon zest, scallions, and generous amounts of fresh mint and cilantro. I flavored a second batch with a ginger-miso dressing to which I added celery and carrots for crunch; a third version included fresh fennel and dried apricots and was dressed with an orange juice–based vinaigrette. See? Barley's not just for soup anymore.

Keys to Success

  • Distinct grains with tender chew

    Cooking the barley in a large volume of salted water washes away much of its sticky starch, which would otherwise cause it to clump. Letting the cooked grains cool on a baking sheet allows them to dry so that they're less sticky; it also prevents the fresh herbs from wilting.
  • Vibrant flavors

    Acid-heavy vinaigrettes and lots of fresh herbs deliver brightness and bold flavor.