This saffron barley risotto is rich, creamy and incredibly satisfying! Pearl barley and mushrooms infused with saffron makes for a deliciously unique side dish or hearty vegetarian main!
When we pull our saffron out of the cupboard for a recipe you can tell we have high expectations for dinner! And while we’ve definitely come across a few dishes that just don’t do justice to the expensive spice, this pearl barley risotto with mushrooms never disappoints. The creamy, slightly nutty risotto perfectly complements the floral, almost earthy flavor of saffron and the final dish never fails to impress!
The three main ingredients you’ll need to source for this recipe are pearl barley, saffron and mushrooms. Pearl barley is the form of barley that has been removed of its outer husk and bran layer. It cooks quicker than hulled barley and is the most common type of barley you’ll find in the supermarket. Pearl barley is also starchy and expands considerably when cooking, which makes it excellent for risotto-style dishes!
As for the saffron, you’ll need about half a teaspoon of threads. While you can buy saffron powder, we generally prefer to buy saffron threads and grind them ourselves using a mortar and pestle. If you decide to go with powder, you’ll really only need a pinch for this recipe!
We went with baby bella mushrooms for this version of risotto, but I would also recommend porcini, shiitake or oyster mushrooms if you can find them. And maybe the best option of all — use a variety of different mushrooms!
making barley risotto
Risotto is made by simmering rice in warm broth that is added one ladle at a time. As you frequently stir the pot of rice, the starches release and the texture of the rice becomes incredibly creamy. This barley risotto, or orzotto (orzo translates as barley in Italian), can be made in the same fashion and is a great alternative to the traditional rice dish!
To make the barley risotto, start by sauteing the mushrooms in a bit of butter and setting them aside. Next, saute your aromatics (I like shallots and garlic) and then add in your barley and toast it for a minute or two — this will result in a heavenly caramelized aroma wafting through your kitchen!
Now it’s time to add the liquids. Start with a bit of white wine to impart flavor and deglaze the pot. Then begin adding warm vegetable broth one ladle at a time and stirring the pot every minute or two. You’ll do this for about 40 minutes or until your risotto is tender, but still chewy. We generally use about four cups (1 liter) of vegetable broth, but sometimes need a bit more. If you run out of broth, hot water will work just as well for the last few ladles.
Once your risotto is in its last 5-10 minutes of cooking you can add the ground saffron threads. Mix the saffron with a bit of broth and stir it into the barley. Then just remove the risotto from heat and stir in any final ingredients — we went with parmesan and fresh thyme for this version, but an extra knob of butter certainly wouldn’t be out of place!
what to serve with saffron barley risotto
This barley risotto makes for an excellent side dish and would feed 4-6 people depending on what you serve with it. We love it with various seafood dishes, such as seared scallops or pan fried fish. But it also pairs well with everything from roast chicken to grilled steak!
Alternatively, we often like to enjoy this dish as a vegetarian dinner. It feeds about three comfortably as a main when we serve it with toasted bread and a light salad.
For more delicious vegetarian mains, check out these recipes:
- falafel + spicy tahini sauce
- kung pao cauliflower
- misir wat | ethiopian lentil stew
- roasted poblano pupusas + curtido
- Heat the vegetable broth in a small pot over medium-low heat. Keep warm.
- Rinse and slice the mushrooms. Heat one tablespoon of butter in a heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the sliced mushrooms and a pinch of salt. Cook the mushrooms (stirring only very occasionally) until they have released their liquid, the liquid has evaporated and the mushrooms are browned (about 15 minutes). Transfer the mushrooms to a plate and set aside.
- Add the remaining tablespoon of butter to the pot. Add the diced shallot and cook until translucent (but not browned).
- Add the garlic and cook an additional minute.
- Add the pearl barley to the pot and toast for 1-2 minutes.
- Pour in the white wine and scrape up any brown bits from the bottom. Cook until absorbed.
- Add a ladle of broth (about ½ cup or 120 ml) to the pot and stir. When the broth has been absorbed (about every 5-7 minutes), add another ladle. Repeat until the barley is tender (approximately 40-50 minutes). The barley should remain at a simmer (reduce heat if necessary) and you'll want to give the barley a stir every few minutes.
- While the barley is cooking, crush the saffron threads into a powder and mix them with a ladle of broth in a small bowl.
- During the last five minutes of cooking, return the mushrooms to the pot and stir in the saffron mixture.
- Remove the pot from heat and stir in the parmesan. Season with salt to taste and garnish with thyme if desired.
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