Belly up to the barley

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We pay a lot of attention to the fruits and vegetables and livestock we raise to feed ourselves, but it seems like grains are often put on the back burners of our minds. Take barley, for instance.

This versatile crop is a member of the grass family, and it was one of the first cultivated grains, being grown as early as 10,000 years ago in the Eurasian region. The majority of barley production worldwide (70%) is used as animal fodder, and only 30% is a dedicated source of fermentable material for beer and certain distilled beverages and for human consumption. It’s usually ranked fourth behind corn, rice and wheat as a grain crop.

(If you’re curious how it’s being raised and used for adult beverages, check out “Celebrated barley came from a single plant” and the work the Born, Bred and Brewed in New York program is doing in “Excelsior Gold and beyond in New York State.”)

February is Barley Month, and in this post we’re going to focus on the grain as a foodstuff, because Real Bread Week is coming soon (Feb. 18 – 26). Real Bread Week has taken place from the second to last Saturday to the last Sunday in February every year since 2010. It is the annual and international celebration of real bread and celebrates additive-free breads and the people who make them.

There are more than four dozen barley cultivars being grown today, with some better adapted to European climates than American ones. Many of the American cultivars were also adapted for the more arid growing conditions in the West and Midwest, although work is being done to bring the crop back to the East Coast (as evidenced with the Excelsior Gold variety noted above).

Barley is a widely adaptable crop, currently popular in temperate areas where it’s grown as a summer crop. Its germination time is one to three days. Barley grows under cool conditions, but depending on the cultivar, is not particularly winter hardy.

It’s more tolerant of soil salinity than wheat but not as cold tolerant as winter wheat, fall rye or winter triticale. Barley has a short growing season and is also relatively drought tolerant – which can be good news based on recent weather patterns.

After harvest, hulled barley (or covered barley) is eaten after removing the inedible, fibrous outer hull. Once removed, it is called dehulled barley. Considered a whole grain, dehulled barley still has its bran and germ. Pearl barley is dehulled barley which has been steam-processed further to remove the bran. It may be polished in a process known as “pearling.” Pearl barley may be processed into various barley products, including flour, flakes similar to oatmeal and grits.

Barley meal is a wholemeal barley flour lighter than wheat meal but darker in color. It is used in gruel (as opposed to porridge, which is made from oats). When milled into meal, it can also be used in bread and biscuits.

The hard facts: Cooked barley is 69% water, 28% carbs, 2% protein and 0.4% fat. In a 3.5-ounce serving, cooked barley provides 123 calories of food energy and is a good source (10% or more of the Daily Value) of essential nutrients, including dietary fiber, vitamin B and niacin (14% DV), and dietary minerals including iron (10% DV) and manganese (12% DV).

According to Sprowt Labs, you should plant barley in early spring. Barley usually requires around 90 days from planting to harvest, and the earlier you get it in, the better. Barley gets off to an earlier start than most weeds, and hopefully you only have to weed it one or two times before the plants shade out the competing weeds.

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