Filling, frugal, and hearty, and really easy to make, this vegan mushroom barley risotto is full of flavour, and an ideal low-effort midweek meal that's on the table in around an hour.
Mushroom Risotto Recipe
This is based on a traditional Czech recipe, houbový Kuba, which means mushrooms Jacob. Or Jacob's mushrooms. I'm not sure. I just understand the literal translation!
What I do understand perfectly well, however, is just how amazingly full of flavour this dish is, and how incredibly simple it is to make from just a handful of store cupboard ingredients.
With plenty of garlic and caramelised onions to keep the mushrooms and barley company, and seasoned with caraway and marjoram, this risotto-like comfort food has rapidly become one of my go-to staples. I completely get why it's so popular in the Czech Republic!
What is Mushroom Barley Risotto?
The Italian food purist in me wants to tell you that because it's not made with rice, this is not really mushroom barley risotto but more of a mushroom and barley stew. However, in terms of taste and texture, it's pretty close to being a risotto, so that's what I'm going with!
Houbový Kuba is a traditional dish from what used to be South Bohemia but is now Czechia. Or the Czech Republic - whichever is the preference du jour.
Like Italian cucina povera, houbový Kuba is simple, frugal fare. This kind of food is known in the Czech Republic as staročeský jidlo - literally 'old Czech food'. Less literally, traditional Czech food!
While traditionally a dish to get rural folk through the lean months (all of the ingredients being easy to store for any length of time), this mushroom risotto is also a popular fasting dish.
Like most Slavic peoples, it's usual for Czechs to observe several fasting periods throughout the year. I go into a bit more detail in my fasole bătută recipe (and yes, I know that Romanians are not Slavs!). Houbový Kuba is a dish that's often made for the Christmas fast.
BTW, there's a popular legend in the Czech Republic that if you see a vision of a golden piglet while fasting at Christmas, you'll have good luck! I love that - it's so sweet!
Other Slavic recipes you may enjoy...
Is barley good for you?
Like all grains and seeds, barley is a veritable store-cupboard of nutrition. I'm sure that were it gluten-free, marketers would have jumped on the wellness bandwagon by now, and touted it as a superfood! It's packed with B and E vitamins, as well as a slew of essential minerals.
Barley has tons of fibre, and has a high satiety rating, which means it keeps you fuller for longer. Apparently, it may also help reduce cholesterol, and be of benefit to heart health. Barley does need to be cooked properly though, otherwise it can cause stomach upset.
Did you know that the Ancient Egyptians are said to have drunk barley water? Mind you, they also kept slaves, and their rulers had a fondness for incestuous relationships, so perhaps that's not the best recommendation! Suffice it to say though, that yes, unless you are gluten intolerant, barley is, as they say, good for you!
Mushrooms are a Czech way of life!
I kid you not; going out into the forests, and foraging for mushrooms is done by everyone, regardless of whether they live in towns, cities, or the countryside. Foraging is a protected right of all Czechs, and there are at least 13 different types of edible wild mushroom that grow abundantly.
Czech wisdom has it that all mushrooms are edible but some are only edible once!
Czechs gather in excess of 20,000 tons of mushrooms every year, along with something like 10,000 of wild blueberries. Pretty cool, eh?
Needless to say, mushrooms feature a lot in Czech cooking! One of the reasons that mushrooms are so popular - quite apart from being so readily available - is that, as every mushroom-loving vegan knows, they make excellent meat substitutes.
Plus, mushrooms are a good source of B Vitamins and selenium, which helps to support our immune system, tissues, and cells. In addition, mushrooms are a non-animal source of Vitamin D, which is something we could probably all do with more of during the winter. The beauty of mushrooms is that unlike us, they don't actually need sunlight to make Vitamin D… although they are very good at absorbing and storing it, making them little powerhouses of delicious goodness!
Check out these other mushroom recipes!
What do I need to make mushroom barley risotto?
- dried mushrooms
- pearl barley
- vegetable broth
- caraway seeds
- Plus a little oil and some salt & pepper. Easy, eh?
Which mushrooms should I use?
It's usual to make mushroom barley risotto with dried porcini (boletus edulis) but you can use any robust ones. As long as they hold up well in cooking, and are really flavoursome, they'll work.
I wouldn't, for example, use wood-ear fungus because while it may be great in dishes such as my Asian-style mushrooms with ginger, it's far too jelly-like to work in houbový Kuba.
In an ideal world, dried mushrooms are your best bet but if you can't get them, or would simply prefer fresh, then by all means do. Again, just make sure they are packed with flavour.
Shiitake are great as well, and can easily be bought dried in Asian stores. When I was living in Romania and Serbia, I had access to a huge amount of mushrooms - both fresh and dried - and have successfully made houbový Kuba with oyster, morel, and chanterelles, as well as huge fresh porcini!
I now have a rather good Polish shop a couple of minutes' walk from my flat, where I can buy all of these varieties dried.
How to make Mushroom Barley Risotto
The traditional way to make mushroom barley risotto is to soak the dried mushrooms and barley overnight but actually, I've found that if I've forgotten to do it the evening before, then soaking them in the morning, and leaving them all day is fine.
Once you're ready to cook your risotto, drain the 'shrooms but keep the soaking water. To get every last drop of broth out of them, give them a bit of a gentle squeeze. Drain and rinse the barley. Discard the soaking water.
Toast the barley in a little oil in a skillet, until it becomes golden, then add the mushrooms and some of the mushroom broth. Allow it to be absorbed by the barley, then add the rest of the mushroom broth, plus half of the veggie broth. Give everything a stir, turn the heat down, and simmer for around 40 minutes, adding more veg broth as necessary.
While the mushrooms and barley are simmering away, gently fry the onions and garlic in a little oil, until they caramelise. Once everything is cooked, mix the caramelised onions and garlic with the barley and mushrooms, add the herbs, and then season. Bake in the oven for 15 mins, then serve. Pickles and bread are traditional accompaniments, and I like to add sauerkraut too!
Why do I have to soak the dried mushrooms and barley?
The purpose of soaking the dried mushrooms is to re-hydrate them, and add a ton of flavour to the soaking water, which is then used to cook the barley.
The barley is soaked not only to soften it but to help make it more digestible. Trust me, you really don’t want a gripey barley tum, so don't be tempted to skip this step.
Obviously, if you're using fresh mushrooms, you won't need to soak them but I really do recommend soaking the barley. It also helps with the cooking time.
How long can I store houbový Kuba?
If you store it in an airtight container, it'll keep for up to a week in the fridge.
Can I freeze it?
I haven't tried freezing it but it should be ok. I regularly freeze stews and pottage which sometimes contain barley, and they are fine. Mushrooms are OK to freeze too.
Can I make this mushroom barley risotto in an Instant Pot?
I don’t own one, so I can't say for sure but I really don't see why you couldn't do the stovetop part in an Instant Pot.
Can I make this mushroom barley risotto in a slow cooker?
You can indeed; just cook the stovetop part for 4-6 hours on high, then bake in the oven as per the recipe.
Is barley gluten-free?
Unfortunately not. 🙁
Could I use something else to make this gluten-free?
I haven't tried with any other cereals but rice would definitely work.
Can I use hulled barley instead of pearl?
Absolutely but you may need to increase the stovetop cooking time.
What is the difference between pearl barley and hulled barley?
Pearl barley has had both its outer husk and bran layer removed. Hulled barley only has the outer husk removed, leaving the bran intact. Hulled barley can take twice as long to cook as pearl, so while it may be more nutritious in its raw state, once cooked, the additional benefits are lessened. Flavour and texture-wise, both pearl and hulled are more or less the same.
Can I use fresh mushrooms?
Dried are best because their flavour is concentrated; however, if you really want to use fresh, you'll need some really 'meaty' ones. See the section above about mushrooms. You'll need to use more vegetable broth, too.
I've seen other houbový Kuba recipes, and they're all much lighter in colour than yours, why?
Possibly because I use more mushroom broth than others. Maybe I've soaked my mushrooms for longer, resulting in a darker broth. I don't know! This is how I was taught to make mushroom barley risotto, and it's super-delicious and nutritious, so I'm not going to worry about the colour of it!
Why does this recipe contain oil? Do I have to use it?
Traditionally, lard is used for houbový Kuba, so for obvious reasons, I've chosen to use oil for frying. I include oil in my diet because I like the taste and texture it gives to my food, and the additional fat helps with satiety. If you have an oil-free diet, then by all means, feel free to omit it, and just braise the barley and vegetables in a little vegetable broth instead.
Which type of skillet should I use?
I use cast iron skillets (see the images in this post!); these can be used both on the stovetop and in the oven. With proper care, they can last a lifetime; I've had mine for almost 40 years, and they show no sign of giving up the ghost yet!
You'll love this mushroom barley risotto
- made with a handful of readily-available ingredients
- quick and easy to make
- perfect for autumn
Czech Mushroom Barley Risotto
- 60 g dried mushrooms
- 350 ml cold water
- 200 g raw pearl barley with enough water to cover
- 2 tbsp sunflower oil divided
- 250 ml vegetable broth
- 2 large onions finely chopped
- 12 cloves garlic smashed and minced
- 1 tsp caraway seeds
- 1 tsp dried marjoram (or oregano)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Fresh parsley to garnish
Soak the mushrooms and barley
- Place the mushrooms in a large bowl, and add the water, making sure they are all covered. Set aside to soak for at least 8 hours, or overnight.
- Add the barley to another bowl, with enough water to cover by about 5cm. Set aside to soak for at least 8 hours, or overnight.
Cook the mushrooms and barley
- Drain the mushrooms but keep the broth. Squeeze them out to make sure you get as much liquid as possible.
- Drain and rinse the barley. Discard the soaking water.
- Heat 1 tbsp oil in a skillet over a medium heat. Add the barley, and toast – stirring all the time - until it starts to become golden.
- Stir in the mushrooms, plus 250ml of the mushroom broth, and allow the barley to absorb the liquid.
- Once the mushroom broth has been soaked up, add the rest, and stir in half of the vegetable broth.
Cook the onions and garlic
- While the mushrooms and barley are cooking, gently fry the onions and garlic in the rest of the oil, over a low heat, until they become caramelised.
Finish the risotto
- Heat the oven to 180°C (350°F / gas mark 4).
- Mix the onions and garlic into the mushrooms and barley, stir in the caraway and marjoram, and then season.
- Place on the centre shelf in the oven, and bake for 15 minutes.
- Serve hot, garnished with a few torn parsley leaves.
- 1 cup = US cup = 240 ml
- 1 tbsp = US/UK = 15 ml
- 1 fl oz = US = 30 ml