Barley Just Don’t Get No Respect

In the world of grains, I think no grain gets less respect than does barley.  In the bakery, barley almost never even gets a glance, much less an occasional supporting role.  However, were barley to disappear tomorrow, it would be sorely missed, almost immediately, given its prime role in the production of beer, ale, and whiskeys around the world.  But I’d bet that most would not guess that the majority of the world’s barley finds it’s way to the feed lot and barns as animal feed – an ignominious fate for one of mankind’s most noble and historic of foods.

Barley’s history goes back at least 10,000 years, when it became man’s first domesticated grain – and as such, it may have played a key role in the transformation of the cultural shift of man from a nomadic life to one of a more settled, agrarian existence.  The theory of how barley came to be man’s first domesticated grain is also interesting – apparently, early man included wild barley among the foods he would gather and eat, but a characteristic of the wild barley made this task more difficult – it seems that the support structure of the wild barley plant was quite weak, which made harvest difficult – but the early gatherers soon noticed that not all wild barley stalks shared this same weakness, so it is theorized that a few enterprising early gatherers began saving the seed of those stronger plants, and planting them all in one area for future gathering – viola, domesticated grain is born!

The early Egyptians made good use of barley, and have left us with a recorded history of their fondness for both barley breads and beers, but by the time of the Roman Empire, barley had become a peasant food, with wheat surpassing it in popularity, especially for the production of breads.  This comes as no surprise to a baker who has worked with low protein flours such as rye and barley – since these flours have low glutin, they do not rise as well as white flour doughs, and therefore are more dense and wet.

I believe barley’s long, slow slide into obscurity continues to this day, with the exception, interestingly, of barley’s use in the production of alcoholic beverages – and that exception is made even all the more fascinating when we see the historical connection between the making of beer/ale, and the making of bread.  In the 17th and 18th centuries in England and Europe, these two commodities were easily the nutritional base of the population of the time.  Since most communities could not trust the quality of their available drinking water, beer and ale became the beverages of choice, even for children, and of course, bread was the primary solid food of the masses.  And if one liked his/her bread with some lightness and rise to it, as all did, then it was necessary for the baker to get his “barm” (fermented barley mash) from the brewer, for without that, only bricks could be baked!  Commercial yeast had yet to be invented.  And even though sourdough was known and used, it did not have the convenience and consistency of the local brewer’s barm – barley to the rescue.

So, even though barley was not often a flour of choice for bakers, it still was playing a major role in the production of bread.  And it still does.  Modern yeasts are still simply byproducts of the brewing industry -just as in days of old- and almost all commercial bakeries rely on “malt”, which is made from barley, to add flavor and color to their loaves.  But although barley is a major player in the bakery, few know about its role.

As I learned more about barley, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “why isn’t barley used more as a primary baking flour?”  Well, it’s easy to see why it isn’t used as the sole flour in a loaf – with its lack of glutin, it would give you almost no rise, and reportedly, 100% barley bread leaves a bitter after-taste in the mouth.  These are two characteristics which are hard to overcome – unless, that is, you use only 10 or 20% of barley flour in your loaf.  You then invite barley’s strength’s to the party, and will create a unique loaf with golden color and nutty taste.  And yes, I have just such a loaf – sourdough of course – for you to try.

The following recipe is not my own – I have far too little experience with sourdough baking, to say nothing of using unique grains, to try my ideas on you.  No, this one comes from an Aussie baker, a professional sourdough baker with a real, functioning bakery – this is no small qualification, my friends.  His name is Warwick Quinton (maybe it’s Quinton Warwick, but what’s the difference!) and here’s his website:  Sourdough Baker.  I tell you all this because a visit to his site will be rewarding – he truly knows his stuff, and has filled the site with lots of instruction and valuable info.  He’s also a good writer, and I suggest, if you have an hour or so, to check out his stories of how he got his start in baking, and the humorous tales of his many bakery adventures along the way – it’s quite good.  Hope you enjoy.

Whole Wheat, Barley Sourdough Bread
(adapted from Warwick Quinton)

600g of whole wheat flour
200 grams of whole grain barley flour
400 grams of  white wheat flour
120 grams of Sourdough Starter *see note below
800 – 850 grams of cold water
25 grams cooking salt

* Quinton is using a “Desem” starter here, which is characterized by being much drier than most sourdough starters – if you wish to be true to his formula, it would be well to tighten up your starter if you are using a more liquid one – I usually use a 100% hydration starter, so 2 days prior to putting this together, I added only barley flour to my starter until it was nice and dry, and then left it on the counter to “age” for two days.

The wholegrain flours need to be well hydrated before proceeding with this dough – mix together the whole wheat and barley flours with the cold water – after mixing well, put in a covered container and put in fridge overnight.

The next day, when you are ready to proceed, remove the whole grain dough from the fridge – it should be somewhat more liquid than when you first mixed it.  Add the white flour and starter – if you wish, you can break up or cut up the dry starter to make it easier to mix.  You can work this dough by hand, or use the stand mixer.  Continue working it until it has come together nicely.

Cover and let rest for half an hour or so.

Add the salt. Work it into the dough until you can’t feel the grains any more, and the salt is well incorporated. Continue kneading manually for another few minutes until the dough begins to get silky and smooth – if you use the stand mixer for this stage, it will not take very long – do not over-work it.

Cover and let rest for about a half hour.

Then give it a stretch and fold, and let it rest for another half an hour.

Continue this process, allowing about 30 minute rests between stretches/folds.  Each time you handle the dough now, you’ll notice it changing and developing.  Altogether, this bulk proofing will take from 4 -6 hours, with stretches and folds throughout.  Remember that sourdough rises much slower than commercial yeast, so it needs this amount of time, maybe even more.

Heat your oven to 355F at least an hour before baking time.

Now divide the dough into two pieces, and prepare two proofing baskets with rice flour dusted towels for the dough’s final rise – shape the two pieces into tight rounds, with the seams on the bottom, try not to remove much of the gas within the dough, and place into the baskets – cover and move to a warm area for about an hour or two, or until you can poke a finger into a loaf and it remains indented.  Spray each loaf with water and score as you wish.

Bake at 355F, using steam if possible for the first five minutes, for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the internal temp of the breads is over 205F.  Turn the oven off, and leave the loaves in the oven -with the oven door cracked open- for 10 minutes more.


My Notes: If you visit Warwick Quinton’s website, Sourdough Baker, you will see he is using a method known as Desem with his sourdough – my research tells me that Desem is a Flemish sourdough process, characterized by maintaining a drier starter and keeping it at room temperature buried in a larger container of dry flour, usually whole wheat.  The theory is that it benefits from the “friendly” environment of mutual fungi and bacteria of the host flour.  Interestingly, Desem is similar, if not identical, to the way the pioneers kept their sourdough starter during the migrations west in the mid 1800s in America.

If you already maintain a Desem starter, by all means use it in this formula, but I’d suggest that if your starter is something different, use whatever you have with this bread.  My attempts to simulate a Desem starter were not entirely successful – I simply tightened my usual 100% starter with some barley flour until it was about 50% hydration, and then I let it mature for a few days.  My sense is that I took a very aggressive starter, subjected it to a very different process, and ultimately weakened it.  If I redid it, I’d simply use my usual 100% starter here.

So, what about the taste?  The barley brings a nuttiness to this bread which is a pleasant addition to the hearty richness of a dark bread – my suspicion is that my weakened starter necessitated a much longer proof than a more aggressive starter would have, and that this fact created a more sour element to the loaf than normal – however, this was not a negative, and in fact, there was an underlying sweetness from both the barley and the whole wheat that stood in balance to the distinct sour tones of the starter.

I started my final proofing at about 2 PM, with thoughts of baking before going to bed – but at 9 PM it was obvious that the rise was proceeding so slowly that I simply left the proofing loaves on the counter for an additional overnight rise.  Did I fear an over-proofing?  Not really – I’ve witnessed some amazingly long sourdough proofs – my very first sourdough loaf -which is still the most delicious I’ve ever made- required a 24 hour final proofing!  However, this is never a good sign, it always suggests that something’s wrong – in this case a weak starter.

As you can see from the pics, I scored too deeply (again!) and because I created a relatively dry dough (62%), it opened as it baked.  You can avoid this with a wetter dough – so use more than the minimum amount of water noted.

To see what barley does to one of your more familiar breads, you may wish to try adding small amounts of barley flour to your current sourdough loaves – and if you like it, move on to more exotic barley based loaves.  If you enjoy darker breads, I think you’ll enjoy what barley brings to the party.


About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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5 Responses to Barley Just Don’t Get No Respect

  1. Glenn says:

    Shades of Rodney Dangerfield! Great post Doc-and thank god for barley and the associated liquid refreshment it helps to provide. I can’t imagine a barleyless existence! The sight of the butter on that chunk of bread is almost more than I can handle- it’s beautiful……..

  2. drfugawe says:

    Hey Tup,
    Does your wife know that you have this thing for butter? Be careful, ’cause she may either divorce you due to your competing love interest, or she’ll use butter to manipulate you into giving her whatever she desires. But I must admit my own butter addiction – when my doc told me I should cut back on butter, I told him I’d do all the other silly things diabetics are supposed to do, but bread and butter have to stay. He told me I’d pay. But recently I had to have an angiogram (shows how clogged your arteries are) and it came back negative – He told me I’d never hear about butter from him ever again.

    How’s the grind?

  3. Tupper says:

    Oh yeah, she knows about butter, and hey I don’t mind being manipulated in the right ways! The grind this week has been good. Got a good group of kids (so far). It’s Friday, heading to camp for the weekend after work. Got a cookout to attend tomorrow, I’m making baked beans- My buddy’s doing specialty burgers for the main course- If I remember the camera I’ll post about it next week- Have a good weekend.

  4. Have you come across lemon, orange, lime and I think at one time rhubarb barley water? A traditional english cordial – which is now associated with Wimbledon tennis – the company that makes it, Robinsons, dates back to 1823. Still going strong. It was originally a patented powder to be taken for fevers and kidney problems

    Pearl barley features in soups, stews and casseroles too, as a traditional cooked grain in english home cooking, though probably not that many people would think of using it first off these days. I see it in lots of modern english cooking books though, ottolenghi, river cottage and so on 🙂

    There is a lovely barley and rye loaf in the Handmade Loaf too with 20 % barley flour, 20% rye to 60% white flour and using a rye leaven that I have tried. A flat profiled loaf but a good one nevertheless.

  5. drfugawe says:

    I have to admit that drink is a new one to me – is it alcoholic? I’d guess yes. Also have to admit that I’m not big on pearl barley, but I do like the nutty edge barley brings to breads.

    A noble grain regardless.

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