Barley is a common staple in human and animal diets. Part of the grass family, it grows in over 100 countries and is one of the most popular cereal crops, surpassed only by wheat, corn and rice. Although barley is fairly adaptable and can be grown in many regions, it is a tender grain and care must be taken in all stages of its growth and harvest.
In the United States, barley grows in nearly half the states, in both dry environments and those that need commercial irrigation. It is a short-season, early maturing crop. The primary uses are in animal feed, seed and malt production. In the U.S., a small amount of barley is used for food products, including bread and cookies as well as soups and pilafs. Malting barley is an ingredient for whiskey and beer.
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Because barley is a whole-grain food, consumption provides several health benefits. It is high is soluble fiber and can reduce blood cholesterol and blood glucose levels. It's also low in fat.
Types of barley include hulled, hulless and pearled. When it is hulled, the tough inedible outer layer is removed. Still considered minimally processed, the hulled barley is a whole grain. It comes in kernels, flakes, grits and flour. The hulless version, also known as naked barley, still has the tough outer hull loosely attached.
Pearled barley has the hull removed and is polished by a scouring process. It can be purchased as regular, medium or fine, but is no longer considered whole grain. This type is available in the same forms as hulless and hulled, and additionally as quick cooking kernels or flakes. Pearled barley is widely available in supermarkets near the rice, dry beans and lentils.
Barley flour is available in health food markets. It is used as a thickener for soups and stews, and also in baked goods. In recipes that need to rise, combine this type of flour with wheat flour.
Flakes made from barley are used like oatmeal or in baked goods. They can be found specialty stores with other cooked cereals or in bulk containers. Barley grits are also used like flakes, as well as in some commercial foods.
To form barley malt, the kernels are soaked and dried. They sprout in a controlled environment. Along with beer, uses for the malt include extracts, syrups and flavorings.
Cooked pearled barley added to a salad provides extra fiber. Main dishes, soups and stews, baked goods and breakfast foods also include this grain as an ingredient. Breakfast recipes include frittatas, pancakes and hash.