Free your barley from soup and risotto it instead

The overlooked grain gets a serious glow up

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 5, 2021 5:30PM (EST)

Barley (Mary Elizabeth Williams)
Barley (Mary Elizabeth Williams)

You don’t need an expensive new piece of equipment, or an obscure ingredient you have to hunt for. You just need a fresh way of preparing an old favorite. In "One Way," we’ll revisit classic ingredients and dishes, giving them a new twist with an easy technique you haven’t tried before.

What did barley ever do to anybody? You want a side dish, or something to rest your vegetables upon, and you reach for rice. You cook up some beans. But barley is always typecast as that thing from that soup. Even lentils get to branch out sometimes.

This is unfortunate, because flavorful, nutty, easy to cook, easy to store and cheap as hell barley deserves so much more love. In fact, so do a lot of the incredible staples that are household names across the world but can't ever seem to crack the market here. Barley and friends, you Robbie Williams of foods, how can we make this right?

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One easy way is to start is by listening to Abra Berens. The chef and author is a champion of seasonal food made simple, and her latest cookbook, "Grist: A Practical Guide to Grains, Beans, Seeds, and Legumes" is an inviting, accessible introduction to the wide world outside of white rice. And while the book is a compelling look at our food system and how we can do better with it, it's first and foremost an enticing celebration of some of our humblest ingredients. I love its "choose your own adventure" and "without boredom" approach, because it encourages big batch cooking followed by clever riffs throughout the week. There are few things more soothing to the frazzled home cook than that one and done approach, and the Thursday night relief knowing that there are cooked beans or farro in the fridge just waiting to be tweaked for dinner.

RELATED: My dad puts turmeric in his risotto — and now I do too

"I really wanted to talk about in the book is this idea of changing the way that we batch cook," says Berens. "My poor sister, I don't know what she was thinking but she made two gallons of lentil soup one time. I just kept getting these text messages from her that were like, 'I'm in lentil soup purgatory. I've been eating lentil soup for ten days.' That made me think, what if she had just cooked lentils and not lentil soup? And then she would've just had lentils to work with. If you prepare the primary ingredient, then let yourself find that creativity of different ways of using it."

And if you're looking for creativity, Berens' way of treating risotto as a verb is tough to beat. That elegant, creamy, comforting dish can be adapted to all kinds of other short, starchy grains — including barley. Risotto-ing is a brilliant technique, the simplest way to get out of a culinary rut and broaden your repertoire of grains.

I rarely make risotto because I'm more of a "stick something on a sheet pan in the oven and walk away with a glass of wine" person than a "stand at the stove stirring stuff for a half hour" one. (See also: polenta.) But when I do, I'm always amazed at how damn good it is. And so, inspired by "Grist," I cranked up my Spotify playlist the other night and got risotto-ing.

I have scaled back the amount of barley in Berens' recipe — though not the wine or the garlic, and you're welcome — because it yields a lot. I have also swapped out regular onions for scallions, but you can use whatever alliums you like best here. I served this up the other night with some slow cooked pork ribs and chipotle hot sauce, and it was so comforting, so damn savory, I forgot for a while how barley could ever have been famous for anything else.



Risotto-style barley
Inspired by Abra Berens' "Grist: A Practical Guide to Cooking Grains, Beans, Seeds, and Legumes"
Makes 4 - 6 portions


  • 1 cup of pearled barley
  • 6 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 cup of white or rosé wine
  • 2 stalks of scallions (also known as green onions), white and green parts, thinly sliced
  • 6 - 8 cups of water or your favorite stock
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • Olive oil
  • Hot sauce (optional)


  1. In a large pot, heat your water or stock and keep at low simmer.
  2. Meanwhile, heat up a few tablespoons of olive oil in a big pan over medium heat.
  3. Add your garlic, salt, and most of your scallions, reserving some for your garnish. Stir until softened, about 5 minutes or so.
  4. Add the barley and stir until it's all coated in oil and just a little toasty, about 2 minutes.
  5. Add your wine and keep stirring.
  6. When the barley has absorbed all the wine, add a ladle of the warmed water or stock and stir. Keep stirring, and as the liquid continues to be absorbed, add more, a ladle at a time. Keep going until the barley is plump and tender to the bite, about 20 minutes.
  7. Remove from heat and serve immediately.

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By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Barley Grist One Way Risotto