Pearl barley or pot barley – which should I use?

October 18, 2019 10:42 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Barley’s a traditional British crop, growing well in our temperate climate. We grow most of it in the east of the country, but plenty in other areas too. If you’re staring out of a train window at gently waving stalks in a field, the chances are pretty high that you’re looking at barley! It’s a crop grown for eating, but also for malting, distilling and brewing purposes, and for use as animal feed.

Barley in the field - but which to cook with? Pearl or pot?

We’ve got all sorts of barley at Naturally Good Food. We’ve stock barley grain and barley flakes. We’ve got powdered barleygrass, made from the young shoots of growing barley, rich in iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc – and we’ve got barley grain designed for sprouting your own barleygrass. We also sell barley malt extract (a natural, unrefined sweetener), barley miso (for your Japanese cooking) and various products containing barley.

Barley is a whole grain and like other whole grains, it’s stuffed full of fibre. That makes it good for bowel health and great for your heart. It scores zero for cholesterol and provides steady, long-lasting, slow-releasing energy. You’ll also find potassium, folate and vitamin B6 in barley.

A pearl of a crop – or all gone to pot?

Most people think of the whole grain when they think of barley. It’s this that you tend to find in soups and stews or forming the basis of a risotto or a pilaf. The grains are slightly oval and take on a somewhat puffy texture when cooked. They’re ideal for thickening out a hearty meal and for absorbing all the other flavours.

If you’re using barley in this way, you have a choice. Pearl? Or pot? And what’s the difference?

Let’s look at ‘pot’ first – so called because it’s intended for your cooking pot! Pot barley is barley grain that’s had its outer hull (or ‘husk’ removed). That part of the barley is inedible, so it has to be taken away. Pot barley is then put in a ‘pearling machine’ for a short amount of time. Much of the bran around the kernels remains intact after pearling, meaning that you get a great boost of fibre, as well as a good helping of phosphorus, iron, magnesium, zinc and B vitamins (notably thiamin). When cooked, pot barley has a nutty taste and adds real body to your dish.

‘Pearl’ barley, meanwhile, starts life as pot barley, but is pearled for a longer amount of time. The whole of the bran layer is removed during the process, to give a little white grain (a bit like a ‘pearl’). In taste, this variety is mild and slightly sweet, with a somewhat chewy texture. In nutritional terms, it’s not as good for you as pot barley – much of the grain’s nutrients are contained in the bran that has been pearled away.

For many people, the big deciding factor between the two varieties is the length of cooking time. If you know your wholefoods, you’ll have guessed this: the trade-off is, as ever, between nutrition and convenience. Pearl barley cooks from grain to plate in just over half an hour. Pot barley, meanwhile, benefits from an overnight soaking, followed by an hour or so in the cooking pot. It will still be slightly chewier than pearl barley, but in a pleasant, sustaining, bit-of-a-bite kind of way.

Can you substitute one for the other?

It’s not always clear which variety of barley a recipe demands. The clue will be in the cooking time: if that’s closer to half an hour than an hour, use pearl barley. If the reverse is true, use pot. To substitute one for the other, you simply need to adjust the cooking time.

Price-wise, they’re both a very affordable grain. We sell both varieties in organic form: currently, our 500g packs of each cost exactly the same (£1.35!). They’re one of the very cheapest grains we sell, as well as one of the most nourishing!

What’s good with barley?

All sorts of things! It’s best known as an ingredient in soups, perhaps, and is often found in bags of ‘soup mix’. We’ve been eating barley in soups and stews in this country since before the Romans came this way. But we’ve also found other uses for it in recent times, including some very imaginative ones.

You can, for example, mix it with sweet ingredients for a pudding that’s full of sustenance. Here’s The Guardian’s recipe for Barley Pudding with Poached Rhubarb and Ginger Compote.

A simple chicken and barley risotto is a great idea – you can obviously add other ingredients as you wish. This recipe is a good place to start. For risotto, it’s probably best to go for pearl barley, unless you’re happy to stand and stir for a very long time.

You can’t beat a simple barley and vegetable soup, of course, like this one: generations of northern Britons have been raised on it.

Finally – going slightly crazy – you might find this Canadian recipe for Hearty Bison Barley Soup right up your street.

What’s the difference between a buffalo and a bison? You can’t wash your hands in a buffalo!

And what’s the difference between pearl and pot barley? Well, you don’t really need to ask, do you?

See all our barley here.

Naturally Good Reads v2

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This post was written by Yzanne

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