Ultimate Guide on How to Cook Barley and Whole Grains

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This ultimate guide will show you how to cook barley and whole grains, and discover more than 20 healthy, beneficial whole grains to incorporate into your diet.

Barley is an underappreciated whole grain, often getting passed up for brown rice or quinoa in the grocery store. It is widely used in soups and stews, though predominantly cultivated for making animal fodder and malt liquor (source).

bowl of barley
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Have you ever thought about changing things up and cooking barley instead of the steel cut oats you may eat every day? What’s stopping you? No need to feel intimidated. This article will cover everything you need to know about barley and cooking with whole grains so you can grain some confidence!

What is Barley?

Barley is a cereal grain belonging to the grass family (Poaceae) (source).

The ancient grain dates back to 8000BCE when it was first domesticated from  Hordeum spontaneum (source).

Barley can grow in many different climates. It can grow in both  Norway and Chile (source).

After wheat, rice, and corn, barely is the next most massive grain grown globally (source).

You can buy barley grains in two forms, hulled barley, and pearled barley.

Hulled barley is the whole grain form of barley. Its outermost shell is removed because it is very tough (source). Its whole grain nutrients are retained, however, it takes longer to cook. Hulled barley is also known as whole barley. 

Pearled barley is most commonly used in barley recipes. Its bran layer and outer layer have been removed. This allows for a  quicker cook time (source).

hulled barley and pearled barley

Either type of barley can be used in a recipe; just  anticipate longer cooking time if you use hulled. If you prefer pearled barley, it also goes by “hull-less.”

Barley Nutrition

1/2 cup pearled barley

  • 240 calories
  • 8 grams protein
  • 2 grams fat
  • 54 grams carbohydrate
  • 4 grams fiber
  • 20.4 mg calcium
  • 1.8 mg iron

1/2 cup hulled (whole, intact) barley

  • 324 calories
  • 12 grams protein
  • 2 grams fat
  • 68 grams carbohydrate
  • 16 grams fiber
  • 40 mg calcium
  • 3.2 mg iron
barley nutrition facts

Barley also has phosphorus and B vitamins (source). The fiber in barley may lower cholesterol more than the fiber in oats (source). You can see here that hulled barley does have a more generous amount of nutrition, but pearled barley is still nutritious and cooks faster. 

So, why cook with barley? Because barley is a nutty-flavored grain with a host of health benefits.

Whole Grain Nutrition

Everyone knows whole grains are essential to eat. Making half of your grain intake whole grains has been the nutrition mantra over the last decade. Many people still eat refined grains far more than whole grains.

In a NHANES study on age-sex matched subjects, refined grains were eaten significantly more than whole grains from toddler aged to the elderly.

Nearly half of the refined grains consumed by Americans are coming from foods like tacos, pizza, burgers,, and sandwiches (source). Common refined grains are white bread, ready-to-eat cereal, cookies, muffins, crackers, and white rice.

Here are a list of whole grains you might consider cooking with soon.

List of Grains

  • Amaranth
  • Barley
  • Buckwheat
  • Bulgur
  • Corn
  • Einkom
  • Farro
  • Fonion
  • Freekeh
  • Kamut
  • Kaniwa
  • Millet
  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • Rice
  • Rye
  • Sorghum
  • Spelt
  • Teff
  • Triticale
  • Wheat
  • Wild Rice

Whole grains have vitamins,  minerals, and many nutrients that have been stripped from refined grains. Every whole grain has a kernel with three parts. These parts are the bran, germ, and endosperm. Each part is packed with nutrition (source).

Bran Layer:

  • Fiber
  • Iron
  • B vitamins
  • Magnesium
  • Iron
  • Copper
  • Antioxidants
  • Phytochemicals

Germ Layer:

  • Vitamin E
  • Healthy fats
  • B vitamins 
  • Phytochemicals
  • Antioxidants

Endosperm Layer:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Protein 
  • B vitamins
  • Minerals

Health Benefits of Whole Grains

About 86% of whole-grain eaters consume whole grains for their health benefits (source).

bowl of barley

Healthy Digestion

Whole grains are crucial to keep things soft and moving throughout your digestive tract. The fiber in whole grains brings happiness to your colon by preventing constipation. No one likes being backed up!

Glucose Metabolism

Refined grains tend to cause rapid spikes in blood sugars. Whole grains provide slower increases in blood sugars, which is better.

In an 18 year study on 160,000 people, some were found to eat several servings of whole grains daily, and others hardly ate them at all.  Compared to those who seldom ate whole grains, those who averaged 2-3 whole grain servings each day were 30% less likely to have developed Type 2 Diabetes (source).

Heart Health

It was concluded that those who ate at least 2.5 servings of whole grains daily were 21% less likely to have heart disease than those who only ate whole grains twice per week (source). This was concluded in a seven study meta-analysis.


A long-term study of 500,000 males and females proposes that there is some colorectal cancer protection from eating whole grains (source)(source). More research is needed here.

Weight Management

Increased fiber consumption helps with satiety. Barley and other whole grains are rich in fiber and can help lead to weight loss. This happens because fiber helps fill you up before your plate is clean, so you essentially eat less.

How to Cook Barley

If you’ve never prepared barley before, you’ll be relieved to learn that there’s nothing to it. Here is how to cook pearled barley. Please see the “Easy Guide to Cooking Whole Grains” below if you’re cooking hulled barley.

Step #1: Add 3 cup of water to a medium-sized saucepan or pot.

Step #2: Add 1 cups of barley to the pot and bring to a boil.

Step #3: Reduce heat and cook until the water is fully absorbed.

Step#4: Add a pinch of salt and fluff with a fork.

This may sound similar to the way you may have prepared rice or quinoa.

Cooking whole grains is more straightforward than it may sound. Many whole grains follow the same blueprint to cook. 

If you’ve run out of the rice you make for your weekly stir-fry, you can substitute it with another whole grain. Whether it’s barley, quinoa, millet, or bulgur, you can make any of these whole grains into a side dish or main dish.

How to Cook Whole Grains

Follow this whole grain cooking cheatsheet to cook grains perfectly.

easy guide to cooking whole grains chart

Download this easy guide to cooking whole grains here:

Bottom Line

Barley and other whole grains are fiber-rich and healthy sources of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. Whole grains are beneficial to your digestive health, heart health, disease prevention, and weight loss. Cooking with barley and other whole grains is simple and can create diversity in your kitchen.

If you liked this post on how to cook barley and other whole grains, then read our post on Kamut, an ancient whole grain. 

how to cook barley and whole grains


  • Dr. Lisa Hugh DHA MSHS RD LDN CLT

    Dr. Lisa Hugh is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Leap Therapist. She is a Doctor of Healthcare Administration and has a Master's of Science in Healthcare Administration. As a Food Sensitivity Expert, her passion is helping people with complex medical and nutrition needs find food and groceries that are safe and enjoyable. Lisa enjoys helping clients in her private practice.

    View all posts
  • Gabrielle McPherson MS RDN LDN

    Gabrielle McPherson is a Registered Dietitian and Freelance Writer. Gabrielle has a masters degree in Clinical Nutrition and a bachelors degree in Dietetics. She has worked extensively with pediatrics and works as a freelance health and nutrition writer.

    View all posts

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1 thought on “Ultimate Guide on How to Cook Barley and Whole Grains”

  1. Nice article. We all need to wake up and realize how poor our diets are. Eating whole grains is a good foundation for making other changes. Taste perception changes, and what seemed bland before will become tasteful, especially if properly seasoned. Then fast and convenience foods will seem gross and weird, like an exaggerated tale told by a pathological liar: you’ll know that while it’s momentarily enjoyable, in the end it’s not real and not worth it.


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