Photo: Jens Mortensen
Move over, wheat toast, and make room for humble barley: This soft, spherical comfort food can keep your blood sugar 20 to 30 percent lower than other morning grains like the whole wheat in toast for up to ten hours, Swedish researchers have found. In a related study, even-keeled blood sugar resulted in better short-term memory and stronger powers of concentration, says author Anne Nilsson, PhD, of Lund University.

"Slow-release carbohydrates such as beta-glucan mean barley is digested very slowly," Nilsson notes. The indigestible fiber in and around barley kernels lingers, making you feel full and yielding another bonus: lower levels of the blood fats that raise the risk for diabetes and heart disease.

Nilsson's breakfast club ate minimally processed "hulled" barley, a type available in some health food stores and online. Researchers aren't sure whether pearl barley or fast-cooking rolled barley flakes pack the same benefits, but they might: The beta-glucans are present throughout the grain, not just in the layers removed by processing. If you're looking for easy, delicious recipes for breakfast barley, Minneapolis chef Robin Asbell, author of The New Whole Grains Cookbook, suggests starting out by cooking it overnight in a slow cooker so it's ready for you in the morning. For pearl barley, use a one-to-four grain-to-water ratio; hulled barley, use four and a half cups of water for every cup of grain. Set the cooker on low when you go to bed, and eight hours later the barley will be ready. Then, she suggests, eat it for breakfast like this: 

Sweet barley porridge: Toss in orange zest, dried cherries, or your favorite dried fruit. Sprinkle spices like cinnamon, ground clove, nutmeg, and allspice into the slow cooker at night, or add in the morning, with skim milk, yogurt, or by itself. 

Savory barley: Place a half-cup scoop of hot, plain barley on a plate, top with grated cheese, a scrambled or poached egg, or kefir. Dust with cracked black pepper. "Breakfast grains don't have to be sweet," Asbell says. 

Polenta-style barley cakes: Pack cooked pearl barley into a storage container, and chill for a day. "It holds together and can be sliced into inch-thick pieces," Asbell says. Carefully scoop out one or two slices to a nonstick frying pan coated with cooking spray or a thin layer of olive oil; cook three to five minutes on high heat, flip, and cook another two to four minutes. "It gets a nice, crisp outer layer and is hot and creamy in the middle, like polenta," Asbell says. Top with smoked salmon, capers, and dill; ratatouille; eggs; or cheese.