This post has been updated for recipe, photos and content since its original publication in 2016.
If you want a classic beef barley soup like grandma makes, THIS IS IT. Literally. My grandmother’s recipe. Old fashioned beef barley soup. Made from scratch right down to the fabulous, silky broth. It’s loaded with vegetables, button mushrooms, diced chunks of beef chuck roast and pearl barley for a beef barley vegetable soup that’s hearty and satisfying. Simmering the barley with the soup, thickens the broth and gives this old fashioned vegetable beef soup more body. This makes a BIG pot of soup that feeds a crowd. However, if you’ve got a small household, it also works great for weekly meal planning.
The ingredients for this classic soup are everyday staples that your pantry and refrigerator are probably already stocked with. Using store bought broth is fine, but if you can use homemade stock, I highly recommend it and this easy beef broth recipe won’t let you down. It’s simmered with real beef bones that add collagen to the broth, giving it that distinctive, velvety coating you’ll only find with homemade broth. That said I’ve always got a few cartons of store bought broth in the pantry, just in case…
Ingredients for beef barley soup
- Mushrooms (button or crimini)
- Chuck roast
- Parsnips or turnips
- Diced tomatoes
- Bay leaves
- Beef broth (homemade or low sodium)
- Beef bouillon (optional, only use with low sodium broth)
I recommend using beef chuck roast for this classic soup recipe because it has more connective tissue than other cuts. That connective tissue breaks down as the soup simmers, tenderizing the meat AND yielding more body (satiny mouth feel) to the soup. Chuck isn’t a cut you’d want to throw on a grill for 10 minutes, but in a soup or stew, a chuck roast (which comes from the shoulder of the animal) is the perfect choice. Bonus, it’s also less expensive than the traditional “tender” pieces like tenderloins that you’ll pay a premium for.
Other beef cuts to use for old-fashioned beef barley soup
- Chuck shoulder
- Chuck eye roast
- Top chuck
- You can also use cuts from the shank, ox tail or brisket
It’s important to cut the beef into small chunks. Here, I’d actually purchased the chuck already cut for beef stew, but clearly those chunks were too big for soup. I cut the beef down further into 1/2″ pieces, so that they’d easily fit on a spoon (and into my mouth). You’ll also want to generously season the beef with salt and pepper before browning the meat, to help build layers of flavor.
Classic vegetables for vegetable beef soup
Onions, carrots and celery are the norm for any old fashioned soup recipe, but also try parsnips or turnips as they add an unexpected flavor. I didn’t have turnips here, but I did use parsnips which look like a white carrot and have a mild flavor, some say sweeter than a carrot. Personally, find the flavor to be very distinct. It’s vegetal without being overpowering.
What’s the best size for cutting vegetables?
When cutting the vegetables for a vegetable beef soup, I like to have chunks of carrot, celery and parsnip that are large enough to identify them in the bowl. Of course, they need to be small enough to fit in your mouth as well. If you have a particularly fat carrot or parsnip, cut it in half lengthwise and then further cut it into 1/2″ moons, slicing crosswise. The bottoms of a celery stalk can get very wide, so chopping that portion into halves or even quarters might make sense. It helps to do all of the peeling, cutting and chopping before assembling the soup, that way everything comes together in quick order.
How to make homemade beef barley vegetable soup
- Saute the mushrooms over medium high heat in a large pot or dutch oven until the mushrooms release their liquid and start to brown. Transfer to a bowl.
- Season the cubed beef well with salt and pepper.
- Sear the beef in the dutch oven, using tongs or a wooden spoon to stir/rotate until the meat is browned on all sides. Transfer the meat to the bowl with mushrooms.
- Saute the vegetables until they’re slightly softened. Stir in the garlic, basil, oregano and bay leaf and cook until warmed and fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Add the beef and mushrooms back to the pot with the tomatoes and broth.
- Place the barley in a mesh strainer and rinse with fresh water until the the water runs clear. (This removes excess starch).
- Heat the vegetable beef soup to boiling and stir in the barley. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes.
- Taste the broth. If you want more flavor (salt), add a beef bouillon cube and stir occasionally until the bouillon is dissolved.
- Stir in the kale and simmer the soup, stirring occasionally for about 15 minutes or until the barley is tender and kale is wilted.
Building umami flavors
You may wonder about the can of diced tomatoes and why I use them. It’s for that deep umami flavor that should be ever-present in and old fashioned beef soup. Aside from the beef (and beef broth) browned mushrooms and tomatoes add complexity and reinforce the rich umami flavor in the soup. Don’t skip it.
The difference between pearl barley and quick cook barley?
Pearl barley has had the outer bran layering and the hull removed, thus polished or pearled… Although its technically a refined grain, pearl barley is still more nutritious than other refined grains because some bran is still present in the grain and the fiber is distributed throughout the kernel.
Quick cooking barley is actually been cooked and dried, then rolled into a barley flake. As a result it’s a quick cooking grain that’s ready in about 10 minutes.
Which barley is best for soup?
You can use either one for beef and barley soup, but I prefer pearl barley.
- If you’d like a broth with more body, I recommend using pearl barley. Pearl barley needs a longer simmer time and will naturally absorb some of the broth and thicken the soup.
- If you prefer a lighter, more brothy soup, you can use quick cooking barley, which is usually ready in about 10 minutes or cook the pearl barley separately according to package directions and add it to the soup after simmering the kale.
Other alternatives to barley
Barley isn’t the only way to go here and thankfully, vegetable beef soup is very accommodating. You can also substitute the following grains, pastas, etc. for the barley, based on what you have on hand.
- Quinoa – To boost protein and to make it a gluten free soup.
- Farro – has an equivalent size and mouth feel to barley. Not gluten-free.
- Rice – to keep it gluten free. Note, don’t use brown rice or wild rice unless you cook it separately first — it will absorb too much of the liquid of the soup.
- Orzo, Ditalini, Elbow Macaroni or other small pasta – I prefer to cook pasta separately and add it to each individual serving because it continues to absorb the hot beef broth even after coming off the stove. The pasta will turn soft and it will absorb a lot of broth.
- Cubed potatoes – Another gluten free option. If using potatoes, I recommend using Yukon Gold or waxy red or white potatoes (not starchy potatoes) cut into a 1/2″ dice (no need to peel them). You can also use diced sweet potatoes. If using potatoes, add them with the rest of the vegetables and not at the end of simmering.
Now, THIS is the old fashioned beef barley soup my grandmother, Myne, used to make. I remember her big Farberware pot simmering on the stove, filled with this hearty soup. This was one of her go-to recipes when we’d visit and every time I make it now, I think of her. It’s meaty, rich and satisfying. Myne liked to serve her vegetable beef soup with popovers or her easy 3-ingredient drop biscuits for a delicious lunch or light dinner. Make a batch today and let me know how you like it.
More classic, old fashioned soup recipes you might like:
- Ham Kale & Great Northern Bean Soup
- Green Pea Soup with Smoked Turkey Wings
- Leftover Turkey Alphabet Soup
- Traditional Pasta Fagioli
- Homemade Italian Wedding Soup
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Classic Beef Barley Soup
- 2 tablespoons olive oil divided
- 8 ounces button mushrooms sliced
- 1 1/2 pounds chuck roast or beef for stew, cut into 1/2" dice
- 2 stalks celery 1/2" dice
- 1 medium onion chopped
- 3 medium parsnips 1/2" dice
- 3 medium carrots peeled and cut into bite sized 1/2" coins
- 1 large clove garlic minced
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 15- ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
- 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
- 1 bay leaf
- 8 cups low sodium beef broth or stock preferably homemade (recipe on this site)
- 4 cups kale tough stems removed, chopped
- 3/4 cup whole pearl barley Can substitute farro, but check cooking times -- it may be less than pearl barley. Note if using quick cook barley, you can reduce the cooking time to fit, by simmering the beef soup for 20 minutes, then adding quick cook barley and kale at the same time for an additional 10-15 minutes to simmer.
- 1 beef bouillon cube for extra depth optional - DO NOT USE WITH REGULAR BEEF BROTH, ONLY LOW SODIUM.
- In a large dutch oven or heavy soup pot, heat 2 teaspoons of the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the mushrooms and a sprinkle of salt (about 1/4 teaspoon), cook and stir until mushrooms begin to brown and give up some of their liquid. Transfer the mushrooms to a small bowl.
- Season the beef with with salt and pepper (about 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in the pot. When the oil is hot and starts to shimmer and moiré, add the beef. Cook, stirring occasionally until browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer the beef to a bowl.
- Add the remaining teaspoon of oil to the pot. Add chopped vegetables and stir to combine. Simmer on the stove for about 5 minutes or until the vegetables are slightly softened. Stir in the garlic, basil and oregano and cook for one minute until fragrant.
- Add the beef and mushrooms back to the pot along with the tomatoes and broth. Heat to boiling. Stir in the barley, reduce heat to a simmer, cover the pot and continue to cook for 20 minutes.
- Stir in the kale and simmer for 15 minutes more, until the barley is tender and the kale has wilted. Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary with additional salt and pepper. Serve.
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