Barley is one of the oldest cultivated grains in the world and it features a large number of recipes, from beef to soups. It is cultivated around the world and therefore easy to find in stores, and you probably always have some in your kitchen.
Some people do not enjoy the taste of barley or they can’t consume it because it is not gluten-free. If you’re looking for barley substitutes for your recipes, there are other grains you can try, among which quinoa and buckwheat that besides being delicious are also gluten-free.
The best substitutes for barley
Barley has been one of the most popular grains since the dawn of time and it’s certainly best known for its role in some delicious soups and in beer brewing.
There is another version, which is far more common in the U.S, that is called pearl barley. This one doesn’t really count as a whole grain because it’s a polished version of barley that has lost its outer and bran layers, so it’s also less nutritious than whole barley.
Barley doesn’t have a strong taste and some people would go as far as saying that it’s tasteless. That’s not quite correct, in fact, cooked barley has a mild nutty flavor and a chewy texture, which makes barley one of those ‘love it or hate it’s foods, just like yeast extracts.
This grain is very nutritious and has several health benefits, in fact, Barley fibers reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, colon cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Barley also helps lower cholesterol, while being cholesterol-free itself. It’s also so poor in fats it’s almost a zero-fat food.
Apart from fibers, barley is also full of proteins. 100 grams (a little more than one cup) of barley contain 12.5 grams of proteins, ¼ of the daily recommended adult intake.
Many people who look for substitutes for barley do it because of its particular flavor and texture, but most are looking for a gluten-free barley alternative.
Quinoa is a valid competitor for barley in the race of the most ancient grain. In fact, it dates back thousands of years and was considered the mother of all grains from ancient cultures like the Incas.
The fun fact about quinoa is that it’s not actually a grain, but rather a seed of the goosefoot plant, which is closely related to spinach.
Today, we hear about quinoa when talking about diets and lifestyles that aim to substitute the less healthy pasta and white rice with this seed.
Quinoa indeed fulfills more than one purpose, because it’s a great substitute for pearl barley and it’s also a gluten-free substitute for barley in general, providing a complete source of proteins for those who can’t or chose not to eat meat and its by-products.
This wonderful grain can substitute most other grains in every recipe, even in risotto. The only difference is that it requires less stock or broth than the average recipe.
Farro is one of the best barley substitutes because it has a nutty flavor and a chewy texture just like barley, so they’re interchangeable in recipes. Farro is largely used in the Mediterranean diet, which is considered one of the healthiest in the world.
Just like barley, there is a variety of farro that is called pearl farro, which is a perfect pearl barley substitute. Pearl farro loses its bran, which makes the cooking time shorter.
However, it is recommended to use whole farro, because pearl varieties of these grains are less nutritional. If you wish to shorten the cooking time of the whole farro, you can let it soak for one night before using it.
After soaking it, the whole farro will only take 10-15 minutes to cook (for comparison, unsoaked whole farro cooking time is around 25-30 minutes).
Farro is the perfect substitute for barley in soup, but also salads, protein bowls, and other side dishes. Nutritionally, it is rich in fibers and proteins and it has more carbs than quinoa, but also more calcium.
Despite the name, buckwheat has nothing to do with wheat and it is actually a great gluten-free barley substitute. It can also be used in place of wheat grains such as spelled, freekeh, wheat berries, and bulgur.
You can make buckwheat flour out of its groats, and use it to make gluten-free variants of noodles, pancakes, crepes, and more. You may have found buckwheat on the ingredient list of soba noodles since it is often used for those products.
Having a low glycemic index, buckwheat is considered very healthy for people affected by type 2 diabetes and those who suffer from high blood pressure. Other nutrients found in buckwheat include:
Its flavor is stronger than other grains and has a nutty and toasty note to it, which some may not like. On the contrary, those who find barley too bland may find buckwheat a savory substitute.
4. Brown rice
Brown rice is healthier and more nutritional than white rice because the latter has been overly-processed and lost its bran and germ layers as a result, which retain most of the nutrients, such as minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins.
Brown rice is not completely unprocessed, in fact, it has been polished to remove the hull (hard protective layer) that however doesn’t translate into any nutrient loss, that’s why it’s a great substitute for barley and other whole grains.
Despite being healthier, brown rice is still rice and as such it contains quite an amount of carbohydrates and calories. However, it has a low glycemic index, meaning it won’t make you feel heavy and sluggish like most carbohydrate-packed foods.
Being rich in fibers, brown rice will make you feel full for a longer time, which helps if you’re on a diet because it will decrease your appetite and you will ingest fewer calories over the course of the day.
Brown rice is also another gluten-free alternative to barley like quinoa and buckwheat.
Millet is another seed that functions as a whole grain. In the U.S. it is mostly known for its flour form, but around the world, the seeds are used in a large variety of recipes, and in some cultures, millet is a staple part of the diet.
These tiny corn kernels-looking seeds are gluten-free like quinoa but are ¾ cheaper than quinoa. In fact, millet is probably the cheapest whole grain available.
Millet doesn’t only look like corn kernels, it also tastes a little like corn. It’s one of the sweet grains and it quickly takes on the flavor of the recipes it’s added into.
Like barley, millet has a nutty note to its flavor, but unlike barley, its texture is not chewy but rather similar to mashed potatoes, which makes it a great choice for those who can’t stand the texture of barley.
Millet is full of proteins and minerals, including iron. Keep in mind that when cooked, millet tends to expand, so if you want to cook a cup of millet, only fill ¼ of it with raw millet.
It may not be easy to find millet whole grain in the average grocery store, however, you can also purchase it online.
Oats are gluten-free cereal grains that are mostly used in baking, cereal, and sometimes soups.
They serve a variety of purposes and can be used in many ways, that’s why they’re often considered a staple food. However, they’re rich in fats, so they don’t last long if abandoned to the shelf life. That’s why you should always buy oats in small quantities if you’re not sure when or how you’re gonna use them.
Oats are particularly good for women because they’re rich in vitamin B6, which helps hormonal balance and may reduce premenstrual symptoms such as cramps, bloating, and mood swings.
Use oats like you would use barley, even though there are probably more uses for oats than for barley, so you can unleash your creativity with this cereal.
Another substitution for barley in gluten-free recipes is sorghum. Despite originating in Africa thousands of years ago, today the USA is the biggest producer of this grain, which was mostly used as animal feed until a few years ago.
Today, with the growing interest and demand for healthy and gluten-free recipes, sorghum has been re-discovered as a valid gluten-free alternative for normal flour and baking mixes.
Sorghum can also easily substitute other grains such as quinoa or buckwheat in recipes and you can cook it as you would cook rice. Adding it to soups and dishes makes for an appetizing taste and consistency.
Nutritionally, sorghum doesn’t fall behind the other grains: it’s packed with fibers, proteins, iron, magnesium, B vitamins, and complex carbohydrates, which make sorghum an energy-boost type of food.
How to choose a barley substitute.
Grains are mostly interchangeable, so when choosing a barley substitute the starting point is not the recipe, but your specific needs. Each barley replacement has slightly different characteristics that we can summarize in four categories:
– The best substitute: if you’re looking for the closest barley-like substitute there is, you should go for farro. Farro will provide the same flavor and texture as barley and you can use pearl farro to substitute pearl barley as well.
– The gluten-free options: one of the main reasons people look for barley substitutes is that they’re trying to find alternatives to wheat-derived products. Today, we are increasingly aware of the different healthy foods can make in our life. Luckily, many barley replacements like quinoa, buckwheat, sorghum, and brown rice are gluten-free.
– The money-saving alternative: eating healthy can sometimes be made hard by the prices of gluten-free products, which are usually more expensive than their counterpart. One barley substitute that is almost inexpensive if compared to other gluten-free grains is millet, which is easily found online even if your local store doesn’t supply it.
– The energy-boost: even though barley and grains, in general, are often considered diet choices, some of them like brown rice and sorghum do contain carbohydrates and calories. The good news is that the carbs contained in these barley substitutes are the good type, the one that boosts your energy without sending your blood sugar on a rollercoaster ride of ups and lows.
Even in the absence of specific medical conditions, grains should be a good part of a balanced and healthy diet because the benefits they offer for the health of our body and mind are too great to be ignored.