Barley is one of the oldest grains used in the world. However, it isn’t gluten-free so a lot of people with sensitivities, allergies, or celiac will want to do their best to avoid it.
If you’ve found yourself in a situation like this, needing to use barley for a recipe but not being able to for one reason or another – whether you’re allergic or just don’t have it – this list will help you figure out what you can substitute for barley in any recipe.
The closest grain to barley is going to be farro. It will give you the closest match to taste and texture. Quinoa or buckwheat are good gluten-free options. Millet is the cheapest barley substitute.
These aren’t your only options however, there are many that can suit the needs of any cook.
What is barley?
Barley is a cereal grain that’s a member of the grass family. It’s been widely used all across the world in various different cultures since the dawn of time, as this was one of the first ever cultivated grains.
It’s incredibly high in dietary fiber and can help reduce cholesterol, aid in digestion, and can even help stimulate weight loss.
Whole grain by far is more healthy than the refined barley grain, however, any type of barley can be used in any recipe that calls for a grain. It can be substituted for, and substitute itself for other grains.
Not only is barley versatile and full of fiber, but it’s also filled to bursting with so many other good minerals and vitamins necessary for good health. Vitamin B6, magnesium, potassium, and far more.
It can help keep your heart healthy, and may even help keep your blood sugar and insulin levels more steady and in healthy ranges. The super healthy soluble fiber slows the absorption of sugar and aids in strengthening the digestive tract.
How do you use barley?
One of the most common recipes using barley is Beef and Barley Soup, however, that’s not the only way you can use this chewy delicious grain.
Barley comes in 2 forms: hulled and pearl.
Hulled barley has had the inedible outer shell removed, but it still has the bran and endosperm layer. Of the two types of barley, hulled is more nutritious and can be considered a whole grain.
Pearl barley has been polished heavily to remove the bran and endosperm layers. This creates a pale, cream-colored grain that isn’t quite as chewy as hulled. Most people who use barley will be more familiar with this type.
Both types of barley are simmered in water or stock. Hulled barley will absorb less liquid than pearl, and will take up to 25 minutes longer to cook. It can make a delicious pilaf, or in whole-grain salads.
Pearl barley is a lot softer than hulled, and because it releases starch into the liquid it’s being cooked in, pearl barley makes a fantastic thickener for soups.
Both types of barley are very versatile and can be used in a wide variety of dishes, from soups and stews, to pilafs and even porridge.
Best barley substitutes
The quickest and easiest substitute for barley is, well, also barley. If your recipe is calling for hulled barley, there’s not really any reason you can’t use pearl barley instead.
Despite a slightly confusing name, buckwheat doesn’t actually have any relation to wheat. It’s a type of grain known as a pseudocereal.
Using the groats, you can make buckwheat flour – and from there you open yourself up to a world of gluten-free cooking. With buckwheat flour, you can make noodles, pancakes, pie crusts and so much more.
Buckwheat even has the added benefit of a low glycemic index and is a very good choice for people affected by type 2 diabetes.
While this option isn’t gluten-free, it’s still a worthy contender to replace barley if it’s all you have.
Couscous is a North African pasta, made from durum wheat. It’s high in protein and antioxidants.
This grain is the perfect option to replace pearl barley in any recipe that calls for it.
Farro looks quite similar, for starters. It has the same nutty flavor and familiar chewy texture, and they’re both incredibly nutritious with an almost identical nutritional profile.
They’re so similar they can practically be used interchangeably.
Quinoa is an ancient grain just like barley, dating back thousands of years, and is considered the mother of all ancient grains.
Interestingly, quinoa isn’t actually a grain. It’s a seed from the goosefoot plant, which is pretty closely related to spinach.
Quinoa is very versatile and can replace not only barley but many pastas and white rice for a healthier option. To make things even better, this is a gluten-free substitute.
Brown rice is the choice over white rice, due to it still having those bran and germ layers. That’s where all the nutrition is in rice, and white rice has been so heavily processed that it no longer has those layers.
Brown rice isn’t entirely unprocessed, however, the polishing it receives is merely to remove the hard inedible protective layer of the hull.
If you’re concerned with your waistline, you should be cautious with brown rice. Though it’s quite healthy, it still has quite a bit of calories and carbohydrates. Though, thanks to its low glycemic index, it isn’t as heavy as other carbs.
Finally, brown rice is a gluten-free substitute for barley.
Much like quinoa, millet is another seed that functions similarly to a whole grain. It’s known most commonly in its flour form in the US, though other parts of the world use the whole seeds. In fact, it’s a staple food in some cultures.
Millet is a gluten-free seed that look like tiny corn kernels. In fact, they don’t just look like corn kernels – they kinda taste like corn too.
If you can’t seem to find any whole millet at your local supermarket or grocery store, you can always purchase it online.
Oats are a cereal grain that’s usually used in baking, but it has other uses too.
Because oats are rich in fat, they have quite a short shelf life. Be sure to buy them in smaller quantities so it doesn’t spoil before you get to it.
Though sorghum originated in Africa thousands of years ago, the USA currently leads the world in production of this grain. Until a few years ago it was used primarily as animal feed.
Because of the current trend of finding gluten-free and healthy recipes, this humble grain is starting to catch a lot of attention.
While sorghum can be used to substitute barley, it can also cover just about any other grain such as quinoa in recipes that call for rice.
Nutritionally, sorghum is packed full of vitamins and nutrients. Magnesium, fiber, and iron to name just a few. The complex carbohydrates cements this grain as an “energy-boosting” food.