Barley is a nutritious grain that is gaining growing interest from health-conscious cooks. Flavorful and chewy, barley offers important soluble fibers and B vitamins, especially when its bran is intact. However, most of the barley eaten in the United States has been milled to remove the bran. You can often find less-refined forms of barley at health food or specialty stores.
Here are some of the types of barley commonly sold today in stores:
Flakes (flaked barley): Like the rolled oats they resemble, barley flakes are grains that have been flattened. They are usually cooked and offered as a hot cereal, but they can also be mixed into muesli and baked goods.
Flour: Barley flour is a mild-flavored flour made from barley grain. It contains a moderate amount of gluten, though not enough to provide structure for most baked foods.
Grits: Most people associate the term grits with southern hominy grits, which are cracked white corn. However, other grains that are cracked to various degrees of fineness are also sold as grits. Barley grits are barley grains that have been toasted and then cracked. They can be cooked and served in place of rice or breakfast cereal.
Hulled: This form of barley is not as widely available as the other types, but its superior nutrient content makes it worth seeking out. Only the outer, inedible husk—called the spikelet— is removed, and not the bran. Thus, hulled barley is rich in dietary fiber. It also contains more iron and trace minerals than pearl barley, and more than four times the thiamin. The grains are brown, and they take longer to cook than pearl barley. Hulled barley has a pronounced flavor, which makes it an appealing ingredient in hearty, country-style soups and stews.
Pasta: Barley pasta is one of the many pasta varieties available on the market today. Barley flower is a slightly nutty-tasting pasta made from barley flour.
Pearl (pearled barley): To produce these uniform, ivory-colored granules, the barley grains are scoured six times during milling to completely remove their double outer husk and their bran layer. Unfortunately, as with white rice, this process also removes nutrients. The thorough milling, however, shortens the grain’s cooking time considerably. Pearl barley has a delicate nutlike taste that readily absorbs the flavors of its companion ingredients in soups, salads, and side dishes.
Pot barley (Scotch barley): A less-refined version than pearl, pot barley is milled just three times, so that part of the bran layer remains. It is usually added to soups and stews. Although more and more supermarkets carry this form, it is most likely to be found in health food stores.
Quick-cooking barley: Sometimes sold as instant barley, this barley has been pressed to flatten it slightly and pre-steamed to cut cooking time from about 45 minutes for regular pearl barley to only 10 minutes.
Unhulled barley: Whole barley grains in their tough outer husk are a bit labor intensive to hull, but are great for making barley sprouts.