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What Does Barley Taste Like? Guide to Barley.

Barley is the oldest cultivated crop in the world. How much do we know about this wonder crop? And what does barley taste like? You’ll learn the answers and more in today’s food guide.

white dish with barley and meat stew.

What Is Barley?

Barley is a cereal grain that is widely used in brewing and malting, as well as for animal feed. It’s one of the oldest grains known to man, having been cultivated since Ancient times in the Middle East and Europe.

This grain is very resilient and can grow in extreme climates or altitudes. Due to its sturdiness, early civilizations domesticated whole-grain barley for their daily needs. It was a common grain in the ancient civilization of Egypt. Evidence shows a record of barley harvests and rationing in hieroglyphs. The crop was also often portrayed in their artistic crafts.

In the modern world, around 70% of barley production still goes to feeding animals. However, 30% of the crop goes to producing malt and other culinary uses. It’s the fourth most cultivated crop after wheat, rice, and maize.

Barley is primarily used to create malt for most alcoholic beverages. It’s also used in making barley bread and flour or added to soups and stews. Its mild and subtle flavors make it a staple in many recipes.

Types of Barley 

It’s important to note that commercial barley is a cereal grain and not whole grain. Whole grains don’t undergo a production process. Meanwhile, most barley varieties already had their outer bran layers removed. 

Fortunately, whole barley is still available in most grocery stores. Here’s a list of the different barley varieties to guide you on your next grocery trip.

Hulled Barley

Hulled barley is the healthiest variety you can find on the market. This is because it’s unprocessed, and the outer bran layer is intact. There’s also hulless barley, where producers remove the outer shells.

People also refer to these grains as whole wheat barley. Since it’s primarily unprocessed, it has richer fiber and protein content. However, it does have a longer cooking time and a slightly chewy texture.

Barley Grits

Barley grits come from two types of barley: hulled barley and pearled barley. These grains are whole grains unless they’re made from pearled barley. Producers crack and toast the grains with the kernels intact to make barley grits.

Barley grits are smaller in size compared to regular grains. They’re often made into cereal or added to bread. Due to their small size, they’re easier and faster to cook.

Barley Flakes

Barley flakes are like rolled oats, except they’re made with barley grains. When making barley flakes, producers slice the kernel. Afterward, the kernels undergo a steaming, rolling, and drying process.

It’s easy to prepare barley flakes since they have the same cooking time as rolled oats. You can eat them for breakfast as an alternative to cereal or oatmeal. They are chewier and have a distinct nutty taste.

Barley Flour

Barley flour is also called barley meal. Out of all the varieties, this has the lowest gluten content. When using barley flour, we recommend mixing it with other types of flour because they are slow to rise. You can also use the flour as a thickener for soups or stews.

Pearl Barley

Pearled barley is the most commonly sold variety in grocery stores. Although cheap, delicious, and readily available, it’s the most processed. Due to their intensive production process, pearled barley isn’t considered “whole grains.” However, this type of grain is best for making barley soup. 

Pearled barley has less fiber and protein content compared to hulled barley. However, it’s a good alternative if you can’t find any whole-grain variety. Pearled barley’s texture and taste are most similar to white rice.

Malt Barley

A special variety of barley is malt barley. This is the main ingredient for beers produced worldwide. In plain terms, malt barley is barley grains germinating after soaking in water.

Due to this germination process, the starch content transforms into sugar. You’ll be able to taste malt barley in beer. It has a dry texture on the tongue with a nutty yet slightly bitter aftertaste.

What Does barley look like?

Barley is a small, round grain that comes in several varieties and colors. It can range in color from light tan to deep reddish-brown. Hulled barley often resembles wheat berries or oat groats in shape. Pearl barley is slightly lighter in color than hulled barley and has a polished look to it.

Is Barley a Seed or Grain? 

To answer this question, you must first learn the difference between a seed and a grain. Although the two are technically related, they still have their botanical definitions. 

For example, grains are edible fruits harvested from grass plants. They usually grow in clusters on top of the stalks. Other types of grains include wheat, rice, and oats. 

On the other hand, seeds are embryonic plants covered in coats. They’re usually developed after the fertilization process of plants. By this definition, barley is a grain and not a seed.

red bowl filled with uncooked barley.

Barley Compared to Other Grains

When you go grocery shopping, you’ll see a wide variety of grains in the cereal aisle. For first-time foodies, it can be intimidating to know which grain is best for a recipe. They have different cooking times, textures, and flavors. So, how do you pick the right one? 

In this list, we’ve compiled all the other grains and how they compare to barley. Make sure to check this out the next time you look for grains:

Barley Vs. Farro

When comparing farro vs barley, we see that they are both types of whole grains that contain a good amount of nutritional benefits. The main difference between farro and barley is in their texture. Barley is relatively soft, while farro has a chewy texture that makes it more difficult to cook. Additionally, barley contains higher levels of fiber than farro and is generally lower.

Barley vs. Wheat

Wheat is the most produced grain in the world. It’s used in many different products and recipes. You can find wheat in cereal, flour, bread, and pasta. These are highly versatile grains with a nutty taste and fibrous texture. Compared to barley, wheat is noticeably sweeter.

Barley vs. Rice

Although barley is a staple in Europe and North America, rice dominates Asia. These grains come in varying sizes, shapes, and colors. They are nutty, earthy, and sticky. The darker the rice’s color, the healthier it is. Brown and red rice are the best varieties. Since they are so popular, most Asian households have a dedicated rice cooker for their meals.

Barley vs. Oats

Oats are cereal grains, just like commercial barley. They are primarily bland with a thin and flaky texture. However, you’re not supposed to eat oats on their own. They taste best when added to other recipes like cookies or oatmeal bowls. We recommend buying whole oats instead of rolled oats if you want a healthier option.

Barley vs. Quinoa

At first glance, barley and quinoa resemble each other. However, they’re very different when it comes to flavor and texture. Quinoa is fluffier, chewier, and has a distinct earthy taste compared to barley. It’s usually eaten as a side dish or mixed into salads.

Barley vs. Rye

Just like barley, rye is also an essential ingredient in alcoholic drinks. Breweries use rye to make whisky and some types of vodkas. This grain is often associated with bread. It’s high in fiber and has nutty, earthy, and subtle spicy flavors.

What Does Barley Taste Like?

Now that you know the different varieties, it’s only natural to ask: what does barley taste like? Barley is always eaten cooked because it’s inedible when raw. On their own, these grains can come across as bland. But they have a subtle nutty aftertaste and a gritty yet chewy texture. Barley is often added to soups or stews as fillers, but it’s also a perfect carb pair for savory dishes.

What Does Barley Tea Taste Like?

Did you know that these grains also come in other forms, like tea? So, what does barley tea taste like? To make barley tea, producers roast the grains. You’ll get a smoky, nutty flavor with a sharp, bitter aftertaste when you drink it. It’s similar to coffee but obviously nuttier.

Does Barley Taste Like Rice?

In most Asian countries, their staple is rice and not barley. Since these crops come from the same family as rice, does barley taste like rice? Yes, barley tastes like rice, especially brown rice. They have the same chewy texture, but barley has more distinct nutty and earthy flavors.

What Pairs Best With Barley?

Barley is highly versatile due to its mild and subtle taste. Just with a pinch of salt, you can flavor this ingredient in any recipe. You can use them as an alternative for other grains in most recipes. Barley also works as a substitute for white rice recipes like risotto or barley pilaf. 

Many bakeries sell barley bread as well. They’re grainy and nutty, similar to wheat bread. The grains can also fill stews, soups, or chili. You can also brew your own barley beer with the proper equipment. Other recipes for cooking barley include barley salad and barley soup.

Barley Nutritional Facts

Barley is a super grain for a reason. These crops are incredibly rich in fiber. Even half a cup of grains contains at least 17 grams of fiber. They’re also a surprising source of protein, with 15 grams for every serving size.

Barley is full of carbs which help fuel the body. Each cup has around 300 calories. With its rich fiber content, you only need a cup or two to fill your stomach. Barley also has vitamins and minerals. These include manganese, magnesium, and vitamin B1.

How to Store Barley

Barley has an extremely long shelf life when stored properly. To reserve for the long term, we recommend placing grains in air-tight containers. This prevents the moisture from spoiling the grains. Once they’re exposed to harsh elements, you’ll be at risk of mold. Barley can last up to 1 year in a cool dark place. 

You can place the grains in your pantry or the cellar. When storing cooked barley, we also suggest placing the grains in a tight container. These will last 3 to 5 days in your fridge. You can also opt to freeze the cooked barley. This will hold on for up to 1 month. There’s no need to freeze raw barley.

Fun Facts About Barley

  • As the oldest cultivated crop, barley has its fair share of rich cultural history. In fact, during the Neolithic period, early humans invented barley beer. Researchers consider this is how the first alcoholic drinks were created. 
  • Barley bread and beer were staples in Egyptian communities. There was also a time when people used barley as currency. In Mesopotamia, the goddess of weather and grain, Shala, used the barley stalk as her symbol.
  • In ancient Rome, gladiators ate a special meal made from barley. This earned them the nickname “barley-eaters,” a term fitting their social status. The grains were also served to soldiers since they were easy to cook, and the crops lasted long in storage.
Is Barley Gluten-Free?

No, barley isn’t gluten-free. Aside from barley, wheat and rye are also not gluten-free.

Is Barley Good For you?

Barley is highly nutritious. The benefits of eating barley make it an excellent choice for those looking to add more nutritious grains to their diets. Each cup of grains contains fiber, protein, magnesium, and vitamin B1. It’s also dense in healthy carbs, which makes it perfect for various diets.

Is Barley Whole Grain?

Yes, barley is a whole grain.


Barley is a domesticated grain that comes from wild grass. It’s the oldest crop in the world. Many early civilizations considered these crops as food staples and feed for livestock. Barley also dominated early humans’ art, culture, and religion.

In the 21st century, most of the barley production goes to livestock. But growers still sell them for culinary uses. You can use barley for making bread, cereal, or flour. The grains are also a worthy alternative for carbs in any meal.

But what does barley taste like? Cooking barley will give you a bland flavor with a nutty aftertaste. Its texture is gritty and chewy. However, it’s incredibly healthy, and a cup of barley can provide plenty of fiber and protein.

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Natalia | Flavorful home
Natalia is a recipe developer, food photographer, and home cook. She started Flavorful Home to document her recipes and share home cooking tips. She loves creating flavorful and nutritious meals while keeping the cooking process simple and joyful!
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