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Monday, June 25, 2012

Ground meat substitute without the pink slime

lentil and barley mixture before seasoning
by Lili Mounce

One of the ways we save on our grocery spending is by eating less meat. And with recent items in the news like the whole "pink slime" thing, I've become even pickier about ground meat. Unless you are standing right there, while your butcher is grinding the cut of beef that you selected, you have no idea what is going into that ground beef.

I understand, we all have our own particularities, and some folks just don't care about this issue.  But it's been enough to motivate me to limit my purchases of "mystery" ground meat. My preferences now, in descending order are to 1) hand select my meat and have the butcher grind it, 2) bring home a cut of meat and "grind" it in my food processor, or 3) very carefully inspect ground beef to buy. All of which cost more than the prepackaged, family-pack beef "chubs".

I have a solution that works for us for many ground beef applications, including burrito, pocket bread, salads and taco filling.  It's cooked barley and lentils.  You could use any combination of legume and grain, for optimal protein, but I like the barley/lentil combo for speed of cooking, low price, and availability of these items in every supermarket.

Once a week, I cook up a large pot of this mixture, store in the fridge, then, as needed, season it according to what I'm making. Barley takes about 15 minutes longer to cook than lentils, so I begin my pot with the barley in the total amount of water for both barley and lentils. After 15 minutes of cooking, I add in the lentils. Both barley and lentils will soak up just over double their measure in water. So, for 1 cup of barley, cook in just over 2 cups of water.

I prepare my combo in a half and half mix. Here's my recipe

  1. put about about 4  1/4 cups water and 1 cup lentils into a large saucepan
  2. bring to a boil, reduce heat then simmer, covered for 15 minutes
  3. add 1 cup of lentils, bring back to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook, covered for about 45 additional minutes, or until all is done. 
  4. close to the end of cooking time, stir up from the bottom and check for water, and add a bit more water, if needed, or leave the lid off if there is too much water remaining.

You may decide you'd like more lentils than barley, in which case, just decrease the barley by the same amount that you increase the lentils. I occasionally do a double batch in a large dutch oven. I freeze the leftovers in amounts suitable for one family meal.

To give this mix flavor, once cooked, add seasonings, such as:

  • chili powder, oregano, garlic, sauteed onions, cumin and salt for Mexican dishes, for burritos, tacos, tostados
  • sauteed chopped onion and green pepper, minced garlic, chopped tomatoes, chili powder, cumin, raisins, salt for North African taste, spoon into pockets and top with plain yogurt and parsley
  • marinated in a vinaigrette for 30 minutes, to top a bed of lettuce
  • sauteed onions and garlic, tomato paste, salt, oregano, basil to add as a layer of filling in lasagna
  • smothered in barbeque sauce, with sauteed onions, green and red pepper, garlic for sloppy Joes

This combination provides good quality protein, has great "chew" from the barley, and costs a pittance -- between 30 cents (with my large quantity purchase of ingredients) and 50 cents (if purchased in small 1 lb. bags in the grocery store) per pound, cooked.

*note - Whenever cooking legumes, always salt after cooking.  Salt inhibits legumes' ability to absorb water.


  1. I think I would like this, but not so sure of my family's reaction. Do you have a technique where you can combine this with ground meat to stretch the meat and slowly introduce the vegetarian mixture?

    1. HI Kris,
      Yes, I think you could disguise the lentil/barley mixture by browning about 2/3 to 3/4 the usual amount of ground beef, drain off any fat, then stir in some of the cooked vegetarian mix, and season. If you do this in a recipe that already has a lot of other ingredients (like the north African pocket sandwiches) the lentils and barley might just go unnoticed, or assumed that they are just part of the recipe. Also, try mixing it in with some ground beef and cheese for burritos. It's hard to see what's inside a wrapped burrito,

      I would start small with the mix, and just see how the family reacts. Then increase the barley/lentil mix gradually. Even a half and half mix would save almost half the cost of ground beef, and would be all that much healthier/leaner. (I'm not a vegetarian. I still think eating some beef is a good thing, for all the available iron, zinc and protein it contains.) Good luck!

  2. I am tickled pink to find this delightful place on the web! Carol, of CT On a Budget directed me here, thankfully.

    On my own little blog I gave you a little love today so I hope my peeps will cruise by and see just how creative you are.

    I marked you in my faves; I think we might be kindred spirits!

    Be well!

    Mother Connie aka Connie Baum from Food Stamps Cooking Club

    1. Hi Connie,
      Welcome! I just saw your blog. I think it's fantastic! You may be right about us being kindred spirits!
      Thank you for the mention on your blog. And thanks, also, for leaving a comment. Be well, to you too.

  3. Another great idea Lili! I've done the lentil/ground beef, but hadn't thought of barley. I'm looking forward to perusing your other posts.

    1. Hi Danielle,
      I like the barley for the texture that it adds. When you did lentil/ground beef, did you mix lentils in with the ground beef, or substitute them completely for ground beef. Kris (above in the comments here) was asking about mixing in this mixture with ground beef, to disguise it a bit, while her family adjusts/ accepts. Just wondering if you have any info/suggestions for mixing in.
      Thanks for the comment!


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