Being an American, barley water is not part of my mental landscape. Perhaps it was big in the U.S. back in the Victorian era, but it seems to have faded from our national consciousness. Indeed, if you’re one of our American readers, you may be asking now: what the heck is it? My fellow Americans, barley water is a drink made from barley, lemon and sugar, known to be cooling and refreshing in the summer and perhaps somewhat healthy.
Meanwhile I do know that it is more popular in other parts of the world. I’ve seen it sold in bottles in Great Britain, and from the Internets I can see it’s known in Ireland and Australia. What say you, Canada? I’ve had unsweetened barley water in a can from a Japanese supermarket, and I believe unsweetened barley water is a health drink all the way from India to Japan. And of course, there’s hot and cold roasted barley tea in those parts, too.
Health claims for barely water vary depending on how and where it’s made. It has been used as a pap for infants, as a balm for digestive systems, to sooth sore throats and to cure UTIs, to promote lactation, and even to combat high blood pressure. This is all fascinating, but I’m just making it as a summer drink.
There’s lots of recipes for barley water on the web, and most of them seem to produce something very like lemonade, i.e. they are made with lots of citrus juice and sugar. But I found an old recipe in Google books (unfortunately I lost the source) which made a mild, barely sweet drink. I cannot say this is at all representative recipe, but I like it precisely because it is so mild–more in the family of cucumber water than lemonade, if you see what I mean. I also like it because there’s no cooking involved. I offer it as an alternative.
After I share my recipe, I’ll give some tips for finding your own barley water path.
I hope our readers will chime in and tell us where they’re from, if and how they make barley water, and whether they use it as a health drink, or just drink it for fun.
Mild, Not-So-Sweet Barley Water
2/3 cup uncooked barley (pearl or hulled)
4 cups (1 qt) boiling water
1 Tablespoon of sugar or other sweetener
A quart Mason jar
- Rinse the barley well, as you’d rinse rice. If you don’t, the finished drink looks even more like dishwater than usual.
- Put the rinsed barley into a quart-sized Mason jar.
- Peel the yellow skin (not the pith) from one half to one full organic lemon with a zester or vegetable peeler. Put the zest into the jar with the barley. You can go ahead and add a squeeze of lemon juice at this time, but I find I like less lemon flavor, so only use the zest.
- Add 1 Tablespoon of sugar.
- Pour boiling water over everything, filling the quart jar.
- Let the mix sit on the counter until it cools, about an hour. Then strain the liquid into another container and refrigerate. Drink when cold. Makes a quart.
Variations and notes:
–There are a million recipes for barley water out there. The most common cooking methodology, though, seems to be a short simmering of the barley in the water, instead of the soaking technique I’ve outlined above. A 20 to 30 minute simmer seems pretty standard. This will yield a more cloudy liquid. After straining the mix is flavored to taste with lemon juice and sugar.
–Longer simmering times result in a more viscous liquid which contains soothing properties and some vitamins. This is what they fed invalids and babies in the old days.
–Similarly, the more barley you use in proportion to water, the thicker and more barley-flavored the result.
–How much lemon and sweetener you want to use is entirely up to you. The recipes run the gamut from having no sweetener to super-sweet.
–Variant flavors include using other citrus flavors, like orange and lime, as well as ginger and mint.
— It is important that you remember to rinse the barley. I found swishing it in a bowl through a couple changes of water enough, but I’ve also seen it recommended that you rinse it with boiling water, and several recipes asked you to bring the barley and water to a boil for five minutes, then pour off the dirty water, replace it with clean and continue cooking.
–Pearl barley is barley that has had the bran scrubbed off of it. It’s what I find around here in grocery stores. Hulled barley is less common, but if you have access to a good health food store you should be able to find it. It’s more nutritious than the pearled kind.
–You will have leftover barley when you make this drink, but it need not be wasted. If you use one of the cooking methods, you’ll end up with a bowl of cooked barley. If you follow my recipe and just soak it, you’ll need to finish the cooking. Cooked barley can be dressed up many ways–it can become a nice snack (with salt and pepper and Parmesan cheese) or breakfast (with honey and fruit). Cooked barley can also thrown into stews or folded into breads. I just found an interesting barley cake recipe that I just might share soon, if it works.
Some other recipes you might enjoy:
A post explaining why barley water is ancient history (with recipes!): http://blog.kathrynmcgowan.com/2010/09/13/barley-water-an-ancient-refreshing-drink/
A Chinese barley water: http://www.noobcook.com/lemon-barley-drink/2/
Super citrus barley water: http://www.thekitchn.com/old-school-cooler-barley-water-122687