Great Grains: Barley, the Perfect Food for Health Ninjas

This is the fifth post in the series “Great Grains," highlighting unusual whole grains and easy ways to incorporate them into your diet. Check out posts on bulgur, millet, rye, and corn as well.


Are you one of those parents who tries to sneak vegetables past your children by grinding them up or disguising them in pasta sauce? Do you add a touch of whole wheat flour to your cupcakes and hope your spouse doesn’t notice that their dessert is a little healthier? At our house, we call this being a “health-food-ninja” -- sneaking in healthier substitutes when the rest of the family isn’t looking.


Earlier this year I managed to “ninja” more barley into our diet by substituting it in some of our favorite dishes. The sneak attack began with soups and stir fry, and now barley fully replaces ground beef in our favorite mushroom swiss burger recipe. Check out the details below on how to create a whole grain sneak-attack in your own kitchen and incorporate more barley into your family’s diet.


What is barley?

Like rye and bulgur, barley is a member of the grass family grown widely across the United States, including in Minnesota. The barley grain has a tough outer shell on it called a hull that must be removed before eating. Most Americans are familiar with barley because of its use in beer production; barley is used to make malt, which is fermented into those ice-cold ales we enjoy all year.


Where do I find it? 

If you’re planning to become a barley ninja, it’s best to know what you’re looking for before you head to the supermarket. Barley is most commonly sold as pearled barley, or grain that has been hulled. During the pearling process however, some or all the germ is removed. The remaining barley is still high in fiber but it often lacks the same antioxidants and cardiovascular benefits found in the germ of true whole grain barley.


The alternative to pearled barley sells as hulled or hulless barley. This type of barley takes longer to cook (45-60 minutes boiling time) but packs the best nutritional punch. It’s often not widely available in supermarkets and grocery stores, but health food and co-ops may provide a better selection. If you’re not able to find it on the shelf, just explain to the store manager about your sneaky intentions. I’m sure they’ll be happy to stock your health-food-ninja supplies!


What do I do with it?

A good ninja knows that sneak attack success all depends on the recipe. Here’s an arsenal of options to add more barley to your meals:


  •  Mushroom Swiss Barley Burgers – Purée ½ cup of cooked barley with 1½ pounds of sautéed mushrooms, an egg and favorite hamburger spices in a food processor. Patty out into 1” burgers and grill until evenly browned on both sides. Add Swiss cheese and heat until melted.


  •  Barley Blueberry Muffins – Substitute barley flour for ½ of the all-purpose flour in your favorite blueberry muffin recipe for added fiber and whole grains.


  •  Stir-Fry over Barley – Stir-fry summer vegetables (zucchini, broccoli, snow peas, carrots, etc.) with lemon and soy sauce. Serve over warm barley instead of white rice.


  •  Barley Stuffed Peppers – Stuff green and red bell peppers with 3 cups of cooked barley instead of bread crumbs, fully cooked ground Italian turkey sausage, tomato sauce and onion. Bake until peppers are tender and filling is hot.


  •  Barley Salad with Fresh Herbs – Add 1 cup of favorite chopped fresh herbs (try parsley, oregano, dill, basil, etc.) to 1½ cups of cooked barley. Toss with a few tablespoons of olive oil for a fresh salad.


  •  Short Rib Barley Soup Try Simple, Good, and Tasty contributor Gabriela Lambert’s recipe for hearty beef soup with barley. Barley makes a perfect whole grain addition for the ribs lover in your family.



Amy Sippl is a frequent contributor to Simple, Good, and Tasty. She grew up in rural Wisconsin, but now calls St. Paul her home. She writes about her successes and struggles to eat and grow local food on her blog: Minnesota Locavore. Her last post in the Great Grains series was The Maize, Corn Debate. Her latest post for SGT was A Minnesota Canning Bee: How to Host a Home Canning Party.


Thanks for these great grain posts. They always inspire me to not just eat, but eat with more imagination. The stuffed pepper idea just about made me drool. Ok, it did actually a little bit. I wonder if I could turn that into a bit of an "eggplant parmesan" type dish, adding layers of of sauce and cheese....and I could even bread and fry the peppers...ok, calm down.

Hi Lawrence - glad you liked the post. Barley is a stand-up substitute for any dish that calls for rice. I think it'd be great with eggplant or in a fried pepper. The past few weekends I've made a big pot of barley and kept in cold in the fridge to add in whenever I get inspired or see an idea that makes me drool just like the peppers!

Holy shit I'm totally a ninja and I never even knew it! Awesome! One of our favorite ninja moves is to grind oat flakes, barley flakes, or rye flakes into a flour using the food processor, then we add the flour to blueberry pancakes. We do the same move with mixed nuts, making a flour and adding to pancakes/waffles. By the by, the ninjafied pancakes taste way better than original, and the nut flour packs a lot of protein into a pancake breakfast. My wife is always trying to ninja our baked goods. Sometimes to excess in my opinion, but the kids don't seem to mind. A whole wheat cupcake is better than no cupcake at all as far as they're concerned. A question ... is it an acceptable ninja move to remove sugar from a recipe? I've been making whipped cream without adding the powdered sugar for months now and the kids didn't seem to notice. They're happy to heap it onto their pancakes, french toast, etc. Great article.

I'm surprised to see a post that is supportive of whole grains displaying that barley burger on a white-wheat-flour (I assume) bun, to be followed by advice that refers to using half white-wheat-flour in a recipe.  Removing the starchy part of the wheat berry from the complex carbs and protein in the germ and bra, (both of which are crucial to the human stomach's capacity to digest that starchy part) makes white-wheat-flour almost not a food at all.  

With this food, being healthy is too easy! Yum, I love barley!

Kudos to your great article Amy! As a hair treatment specialist i can tell you how important is to eat whole grains as part of a healthy diet. Sure to try all the recipes.

Barley is considered to be the best whole grain and has numerous health benefits. It is rich in calcium, iron and proteins. They help to remove toxins from the body and help in metabolism. Including barley in your daily diet is very much useful and will provide necessary nutrition. The people who want to looe weight will be benefitted by this food.

You have got to be kidding me.. Your Mushroom Swiss Barley burgers is just brilliant.. I am a health ninja, while my husband wants to eat healthy, he can't get healthy food down his throat.. I have no option but to trick him, and this was just beyond my wildest imagination. I am going to be one smug wife and mother.

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