Pearl barley is the name given to barley grains with both their hull and bran layer removed, leaving a rounded, polished exterior. These grains cook faster than those with the bran layer in tact, and for this reason are sometimes sold as “quick cooking” or “easy preparation” barley. Despite losing their nutritious bran layer during processing, pearl barley is nevertheless considered a health food, as it contains a number of essential vitamins and minerals. It is commonly eaten on its own, or added to soups and stews; it may also be used in animal feed or on industrial farms.
How it is Processed
Barley is a grain that, in nature, grows encased in a tough hull. Humans cannot digest the hull, and it is always removed — either by machines or by consumers themselves — before the grain is cooked or eaten.
Underneath the hull is a layer of bran. The bran lends a rough texture and nutty flavor, as well as significant amount of fiber. Most of the barley that is sold commercially has this bran layer in tact. The biggest exception is pearl barley — in order to achieve the smooth, shiny surface so characteristic of this variation, the bran layer must be removed. This is almost always done mechanically, usually in a grain processing plant. The bran layer is either soaked or rubbed off, and the resulting grain rinsed, dried, and packaged for sale.
Despite having lost its nutritious bran layer, barley pearls are still usually considered a whole grain, and have many nutritive benefits. Pearls are high in protein, iron, and natural fiber, and also contain small amounts of calcium. Like all other types of barley, pearled versions are also very low in fat. Some medical studies suggest that regularly eating barley and other whole grains can help regulate blood sugar, which may be of particular benefit to diabetics. It may also help to lower cholesterol.
Cooking pearl barley is usually very simple. The grain can usually be prepared just as rice would be — that is, by simmering it in a small amount of boiling water, then waiting for that water to be absorbed. The density of the grain means that it will often take longer to cook than basic white rice might, but it is not usually any more complicated. Many commercial rice cookers can also be adjusted to cook pearl barley.
Most recipes that call for “barley” can take either pearled or hulled varieties. Grains with their bran layer still in tact will take longer to cook, but the two are basically interchangeable in terms of taste and texture.
Cooks can be very innovative with pearled barley preparations. The grain is often served either as a side dish or as a hot cereal, usually with milk or honey. Some also choose to toss it into salads. Raw pearls are commonly added to thicken soups and stews, as well, lending a nutritive boost while often improving the overall texture and heartiness.
Industrial and Farm Consumption
Pearl barley can also be used in animal feed. This is often what happens to pearls that are misshapen or fail to separate completely from their bran layer or hull. Rather than waste the damaged grains, manufacturers send them to livestock processing plants where they provide useful nutrition to a range of farm animals.