The vitamin and mineral-rich cereal grain grown across Canada is also used to lend a nutty flavour and chewy texture to salads, risottos, chilis, casseroles, cakes, squares and muffins.
Canada produces around eight million metric tonnes of barley, sold in this country and abroad, and Alberta grows over half of that, said Matt Sawyer, chairman of the Calgary-based Alberta Barley Commission.
But much of that barley will never make it into your food.
The bulk of it is feed barley that nourishes livestock while about 20 per cent is malt barley, used to give flavour and alcoholic content to beer and whisky, added Sawyer, who grows canola, wheat and malt barley on his 1,700 hectares northeast of Calgary near Acme, Alta.
A small percentage of barley is used for the consumer food market, and that's creating interest among those keen to consume ancient grains and eat local, said Linda Whitworth, market development manager for the Alberta Barley Commission.
Last July, Health Canada endorsed barley for its ability to help lower cholesterol.
The agency found that a daily intake of three grams of the beta-glucan fibre found in barley led to a significant decrease in total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol ("the bad cholesterol").
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"If you're making something like barley pancakes or barley waffles, oftentimes one waffle will give you all three grams of the barley beta-glucans that helps to reduce cholesterol," she said.
Barley is low on the glycemic index, releasing glucose more slowly and steadily into the bloodstream than a food such as white bread. It keeps you feeling fuller longer.
It also contains thiamin, niacin, folate, riboflavin, iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, zinc and selenium.
"And it tastes really good. That's the key thing," said the Calgary-based Whitworth.
Food barley comes in several forms.
Pot and pearl barley are probably the most common and are widely known for their use in beef and barley soup. Both have been put through a pearling machine in which a grinding wheel removes the outer inedible hull and polishes the kernel. Because pot barley doesn't stay in the pearler as long it is left with more of the barley germ and so is a bit higher in fibre.
Whitworth uses pearl and pot barley interchangeably in recipes. The only time she might choose pearl barley is if she's making a mousse or pudding where a finer consistency is desired.
"There's not much difference between them other than that pot barley might take five to 10 minutes longer to cook," she adds.
Barley flakes can be used in place of oats in crumbles, granola, cookies or muffins.
Whole-grain barley flour has a nuttier flavour than all-purpose flour and can be substituted for all-purpose in cookies, muffins, waffles, pancakes, cakes and quickbreads. It can have more than three times the dietary fibre of enriched all-purposed flour.
Whitworth uses barley flour in muffins. "I've taken lots of my regular muffin recipes and just used 100 per cent barley flour and they taste exactly the same. The final product is beautiful."
Barley flour contains a small amount of gluten but not enough to develop the yeast so it needs to be combined with all-purpose flour for yeast breads.
"So people who do have a slight wheat intolerance are probably fine eating barley, but people who are diagnosed with celiac disease still can't eat barley," Whitworth said.
Here are some more tips for using barley.
— Rinse pearl or pot barley before cooking to wash off grain dust from the pearling process.
— You can cook pot or pearl barley on top of the stove, in the oven, in a rice cooker and in a slow cooker.
— Cook more than you need and use it wherever you would use cooked rice. You can refrigerate it for three to five days or freeze it for up to three months.
Online:For more tips and recipes, visit the Alberta Barley Commission's new website