Spring may have sprung in most of the country, but I am currently in Montana looking out at two inches of newly fallen snow with more on the way and winter storm warning for the next 24 hours. It’s May! While beef barley soup is perfect for cold winter nights, sometimes it’s a good choice for cold spring nights too. Loaded with fresh veggies, tender beef, and plump whole grain barley, it’s a perfect meal to warm the soul.

For me this soup is the epitome of comfort food. Beef stew—nearly the same in flavor as beef barley soup—was a regular on my mom’s menu rotation, especially in the cold winter months (and, in Montana, cold spring and fall months too). This recipe exchanges the stew’s potatoes and parsnips for mushrooms and barley giving the soup a great variety of textures.

This classic is one that once you make it from scratch, you’ll never want canned again. But that really goes for any soup.

Choosing the Right Beef

One of the turnoffs to any soup or stew is tough meat. Follow these tips to ensure the beef is melt-in-your-mouth tender and flavorful. These suggestions hold for any soup or stew in which beef is a main component.

You will need to cook the beef long enough to ensure that it is tender, but not so long that the beef dries out or becomes tough. This means starting with collagen-rich cuts of beef. Collagen is a tough connective tissue found in the muscle. Cuts like tenderloin, strip steak, and ribeye are low in collagen so extended cooking dries them out. Collagen-rich cuts, like chuck and short rib, however, are tough when cooked for a brief period of time, but become tender with low, slow cooking. The collagen breaks down, giving the meat a moistness even as the water cooks out.

Collagen is not the same as fat. This article from the Science of Cooking has a great explanation of the differences. Essentially, collagen is a connective tissue surrounding individual muscle fibers. Due to its makeup of molecules twisted around one another like a rope, collagen is what makes a piece of meat tough if not cooked long enough. Collagen is soluble in water so when cooked slowly with moist heat, it becomes gelatin and produces a tender bite of beef. Fat also melts when heated, helping to keep the beef moist and flavorful.

Your best bet for cost and convenience is chuck roast, which comes from the upper shoulder and lower neck of a cow. The downside to this cut is that it includes different parts of the muscle system, and you may end up with some variation in tenderness. The short rib can be more expensive but is a more consistent cut of meat. You may even be able to find the short rib bone-in, which can add a boost of beefy flavor to your soup, though deboning before or after cooking will require more prep time. You may be able to ask your butcher to do the deboning for you. Just be sure to let them know you want to keep the bones and throw them in the pot with everything else.

In and Out of the Pot

A rich soup is built in layers. This recipe requires you to move ingredients in and out of the pot. While this does make the process somewhat cumbersome, you’ll be happy you took the steps to build a great base. This section provides an overview of the process. See the full recipe below for precise cooking instructions.

Start by browning the beef

Most stew and soup recipes that include beef have you start by browning the meat. Browning builds flavor but can dry out the meat if cooked too long. To avoid overcooking, I recommend browning the beef in large pieces. Browning should be done in the soup pot. All those leftover bits that remain after browning will add to the flavor of the soup. Make sure the oil is hot before adding the meat. Cook until seared on one side, flip, then remove promptly from the pot. Once the meat cools, cut into smaller, bite-sized pieces.

If your beef is already cut into stewing pieces, simply brown half of the pieces and add the the browned pieces and raw pieces to your soup at the same time. If you have a very large cut, like a chuck roast, cut into steaks first to get slightly more surface area for browning. You may need to brown in batches.

Beef out, veggies in

After the beef is removed from the pot, add diced carrots, onion, celery, mushrooms, and garlic to the pot and cook them until they’re lightly browned. Use the liquid initially released by the vegetables to scrape up browned bits of beef that are left behind. For an extra boost of flavor, add a splash of red wine to aid in the deglazing process (adding liquid, such as stock or wine, to a pan to loosen and dissolve food particles that are stuck to the bottom after cooking or searing).

Once your veggies are cooked and have soaked up all the flavor, scrape them into a bowl and set aside. Beef needs time to cook and if you cook the vegetables for the same amount of time, they’ll become mushy and flavorless.

Veggies out, beef back in

It’s now time to return the beef to the soup pot. If you have bones from the butcher, this is the time to add them to the pot too. Then add the rest of the base ingredients and cook the beef low and slow for one to two hours. Test after an hour to gauge the level of tenderness. If the beef is still tough, let it keep cooking.

Barley and veggies return

When the beef is nearly done, fish out the bones and bay leaf and add the barley and sautéed vegetables. Cook for another half hour or until the barley is tender.

beef barley soup

Beef Barley Soup

This soup combines tender beef, nutty barley, and earthy mushrooms to produce a savory and satisfying soup perfect for cold winter nights. Give yourself enough cooking time to ensure your beef is tender.
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours 30 minutes
Course Soup
Servings 6

Ingredients
  

  • 1.5 lb chuck roast or short ribs, cut into chunks
  • 3 Tbsp high heat oil (corn, vegetable, coconut), divided
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 ribs celery, diced
  • 3/4 lb carrot, diced
  • 1/2 lb cremini mushroos, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 quarts water
  • 3 Tbsp Better Than Bullion (beef, chicken, or mushroom)
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 Tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2/3 cup barley
  • 1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce (optional)
  • 1 Tbsp tamari (optional)

Instructions
 

  • Season the beef generously with salt and pepper.
  • Set a large stock or soup pot over medium high heat and add 2 Tbsp oil. When the oil is nearly smoking, add half the meat and sear to a deep brown on two sides, about 6 minutes total. Transfer to a plate and repeat with the remaining oil and beef, trnsferring the pieces to the plate when finished.
  • Return the pot to the stove and add the onion, celery, crrot, and mushrooms. Saute until softened and beginning to carmelize, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for another minute, then transfer the vegetables to a bowl and set aside.
  • Place the pot back on the stove and add the water, bullion, tomato paste, fish sauce, thyme, and bay leaf. Stir to incorporate all the ingredients. Then add the seared beef. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to very low. Cover loosely and simmer until the beef is nearly done, about 1.5 hours.
  • When the beef is nearly done, stir in the barley and reserved vegetables. Increase the heat and return the soup to a boil, then lower again and simmer for about 30 minutes until the barley is tender. You may need to add more water to maintain a borthy conisteny.
  • When the barley is done, taste and season to your liking, adding a touch of Worchestershire, tamari, or salt and pepper.
Keyword barley, beef, beef barley soup