Take your dinner to the next level with this comforting and healthy butternut squash barley risotto. The nutty flavor of the barley will shine among the smooth parmesan and white wine.
Your family will enjoy the varying texture of the squash and corn, and everyone will leave with satisfied bellies.
Update Notes: This recipe was originally published in October 2016 and updated in July of 2020 with new photos and recipe tips.
Why this barley risotto with butternut squash works?
Besides being a nutritious dish, butternut squash barley risotto is very versatile and adaptable. It works as a main vegetarian (when you crave those filling grains) or a side dish that is not limited to fall and the holiday season only.
I haven't tried it yet, but I've heard it can be enjoyed as a hot breakfast cereal. I may have to do that as risotto is a creamy dish itself, and serving barley for breakfast as a stand-in for creamy oatmeal would be the next step!
Can I use rice instead of barley?
Barley is higher in protein than rice and has more fiber, which helps process cholesterol in the body, but it is not gluten-free.
If you are on a GF diet, then do use rice. Arborio rice is traditionally used for risotto, but you can use Jasmine or Basmati for quicker cooking.
How to Cook Barley?
Traditional Italian risotto requires a LOT of hands-on time. Most recipes have you watching the pan of rice, as well as a simmering pot of stock.
You then have to slowly add the stock into the rice a little at a time, stirring pretty much constantly. I don't know about you, but many days I don't have that much time to devote to making dinner.
The pearled barley itself does take 40-50 minutes to cook, but you can use the quick-cooking kind or leave it alone to simmer and keep busy with your other tasks at the same time. Just bring your barley and broth to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover, and walk away.
How to Cook Butternut Squash?
This recipe has you prep your squash to the right size ahead of cooking. As long as you have a sturdy vegetable peeler and a sharp chef's knife, you should be fine.
Peel first, making sure you get off all the lighter colored bits until you reach the deep-colored flesh. Then I like to chop off the bulbous end from the longer part. This makes it easy to scoop out the seeds.
Then just cut into consistent pieces before sautéing and boiling. You can get both the barley and squash cooking at the same time on the stovetop and then just combine to serve.
Next time I'll try baked butternut squash in the oven as Williams Sonoma did in this recipe. Roasting gives you some added flavor since the squash caramelizes in the oven, and you won't have two pots on the stove at once for this recipe.
You can also cook squash in the Instant Pot, without even peeling it first, but I don't recommend it for recipes like this since it's hard to get the texture just right to keep its shape. The Instant Pot is better for when you want to puree your squash.
- Small butternut squash - If your squash is larger, use those leftovers to make a delicious soup. You could always stir a little leftover (and mashed!) into your favorite mac and cheese.
- Barley - Quick-cooking barley cooks in 10-12 minutes while pearl barley needs about 40-50 minutes to soften. You can also try using quick-cooking farro or stick with rice if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
- Oil - Olive oil, vegetable, sunflower, or any oil you have available. If you're not counting your calories, use butter!
- Onion - Medium size white or yellow onion.
- Spinach - Baby spinach is what we used here. Still, you can substitute it with chard, kale, or another green leafy vegetable.
- Corn kernels - Fresh, frozen, or canned.
- Parmesan cheese - Grated or shredded (omit to make it vegan).
- Chicken broth - Sub with vegetable broth for a vegan version.
- White wine - Dry, like Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio.
- Garlic - Fresh and minced
- Sage and thyme - I always recommend fresh herbs, but dry is also fine (which is what I used here). I regularly use Dalmatian sage (Dalmatia is a region in Croatia). It is remarkably flavorful with an aromatic, savory, woodsy and herbaceous taste (thought to be superior to the more common sage varieties).
- Lemon zest - It gives the dish such a lovely bright flavor note.
- Salt and pepper - To taste.
OK, so how do you make butternut squash barley risotto?
*Keep scrolling to get the full (printable) recipe, ingredient amounts, and more tips, or click on the "Skip to Recipe" button at the top of the page.
- Easy! I start by sautéing chopped onions until translucent for just a few minutes.
- Next, I add cubed squash to the onions and sauté for another few minutes to warm it through.
- Then, I add the minced garlic and a splash of white wine. Once the wine has cooked down, I add in the chicken broth, sage, and thyme. Once it starts boiling, I reduce the heat, cover, and cook until squash is just tender.
- Meanwhile, I cook the barley in chicken broth. You can also add it to the pan and cook together with the butternut squash, but I feel I have better control over it when I cook it separately. This also depends on whether I'm using pearl barley or quick-cooking barley.
- Finaly, when squash is tender, I stir in the cooked barley, corn, and parmesan and fold in the spinach. I let it wilt from the heat. At this point, I season everything with salt and pepper to taste, then I sprinkle it with lemon zest right before serving.
What to Serve with Barley Risotto?
I love that risotto is so flexible. If you are vegetarian or want to even more increase the nutrition in the meal, a fresh green salad would be a great side dish.
Serving something fresh and crisp alongside a warm and creamy dish gives you a lot of enjoyment from your meal.
Other recipes with butternut squash to try:
- BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND APPLE SOUP
- BUTTERNUT SQUASH WITH PECANS AND BLUE CHEESE
- APPLE AND BUTTERNUT SQUASH LASAGNA
Butternut Squash-Barley Risotto
- Large non-stick skillet
- Medium saucepan
- Kitchen knife
- Vegetable peeler
- ½ cup quick-cooking barley
- 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth divided
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 onion chopped
- 1 small butternut squash peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
- 1 garlic clove minced
- ½ cup dry white wine
- ¼ teaspoon each dried sage and thyme
- 1 cup corn fresh, frozen or canned
- 3 cups baby spinach
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest optional
- Mix in minced garlic and 1/2 cup wine and cook until wine has evaporated, about 1 minute. Add remaining 1 cup of broth, sage and thyme. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer, 20 to 25 minutes or until squash is just tender.
- Meanwhile, stir 1/2 cup of barley into briskly boiling 1 cup of broth. Reduce heat to a simmer; cook, covered, until tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed, 10-12 minutes or whatever the package instructions suggest.
- Stir cooked barley and 1 cup corn into the skillet with squash. Add 3 cups spinach and 1/2 cup parmesan cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Remove from heat. Sprinkle with lemon zest and serve with additional parmesan if you like.
- Cut the squash into consistent pieces so that it cooks evenly.
- The smaller you cut the squash, the less time it needs to cook. Check for tenderness by piercing with a fork during cooking.
- If you use pearl barley, keep in mind that it needs much longer to cook.
- This dish will last stored in the refrigerator for 3-5 days. Reheat in the microwave.
- For vegan option, use vegetable broth and omit the parmesan or use nutritional yeast or other substitute.
- For gluten-free option, replace barley with rice.
- For the best results, read additional tips in the post above.
- Please keep in mind that nutritional information is a rough estimate and can vary significantly based on products used.