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I am most definitely not Scottish. The closest I come is knowing all the words to a 2008 rom-com Called “Made of Honor,” where the main character falls in love with his best friend who drops a bomb that she’s marrying a wealthy Scot named Colin.
And if you’re looking for something to watch while you eat, this is also a really wonderful movie that pairs well with a hearty bowl of soup like the one we’re about to dive into.
While none of the above may seem to have any direct connection to beef and barley soup, this rant all comes back to the fact that the brothy concoction originated in Scotland.
In regards to Scotch broth, The Oxford Companion to Food states “aka barley broth, probably the best-known member of the broth clan, and one of the most famous Scottish dishes, is typically prepared by boiling beef and barley, adding vegetables (carrot, swede, onion or white of leek, parsley) and a very little sugar.”
If you’re interested in learning more about this and a panoply of other foods, this hefty tome is available on Amazon.
Unlike myself, this warm, cozy dish most certainly has Scottish roots. But today I’d like to stick primarily with bragging about its flavor and simplicity.
The story of beef and barley begins the same way as that of many classic soups.
There’s a protein that’s seared on all sides until a golden-brown crust is formed. It’s set aside while aromatics bathe in all of the goodness said protein has left behind. With a whoosh!, a liquid splashes into the pot and helps to wriggle all the yummy caramelized bits free from the bottom of the pot.
Protein goes back in. Simmer, simmer. Serve. The end.
Though you may be tempted to call it “beef stew,” the plot twist for this dish is that it’s been thickened through the addition of a fiber-rich grain. So it’s like stew, but wetter.
To barley! Hey, I recognize you from my old pal, beer, in the form of malt.
You could use hulled barley in this recipe (the healthiest form since it only has the outermost hull removed, as opposed to Pearl who also lost her bran layer), but it will take an hour or more to cook through.
Instead, pearled barley still exhibits many fabulous qualities like being nutritious and having a chewy texture, with a much quicker cooking time since it’s a more refined grain. Mine was perfect in just around 30 minutes.
If you’ve come across the term “pot barley” before and are currently as confused as ever, don’t fret. Here’s the scoop: This variety has also been pearled, but pot barley endures the process for a shorter amount of time, so it still retains most of its bran as well as the germ.
Pearl barley, hence the name, has gotten a little extra pampering through polishing.
This nutty, versatile grain makes a fantastic addition to soup, and beef and barley has become a classic combination that many will agree is a match made in heaven. I mean, in a stockpot. How romantic.
As it cooks, the polished morsels plump up and act like a sponge by absorbing the other surrounding flavors – like those of earthy mushrooms and robust red wine, in our case.
The starch in the barley also acts as a thickener, which takes the texture of the liquid to a whole new level.
Onions and carrots are a no-brainer in beef soup, but woody rosemary, lemony thyme, and my secret ingredient all add to the final wow factor.
Ready for the reveal? Okay, it’s tomato paste. Not really a secret when it’s in the ingredients list, I guess… but now you know!
When you allow tomato paste to caramelize alongside the aromatics instead of just carelessly throwing it into the pot, the natural sugars in the paste become rich and savory.
And when it comes to soup, depth of flavor is everything. Well, along with a good thick napkin tucked into your shirt.Print
Tomato paste and red wine add rich depth of flavor to this beef and barley soup, while mushrooms bring earthiness.
- 2 tablespoons canola oil, divided
- 1 1/2 pounds boneless beef chuck roast, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt, divided, plus more to taste
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided, plus more to taste
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped (about 1 cup)
- 2 stalks celery, diced (about 1 cup)
- 8 ounces cremini or white button mushrooms, trimmed and chopped (about 2 cups)
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme, plus more for garnish
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
- 4 large cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 cup dry red wine
- 6 cups low-sodium beef stock
- 2/3 cup pearled barley
- In a large, 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven placed over medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon of the oil and swirl to coat the pan.
- Pat the beef dry on paper towels and then season with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Add the beef to the pot and sear until golden-brown on all sides, about 3-5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the beef pieces and set them aside on a plate.
- Reduce the heat to medium and add the remaining oil. Add the onion, carrots, celery, mushrooms, remaining salt and pepper, thyme, and rosemary. Saute until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic, tomato paste, and bay leaf and cook for 1 more minute. Add the beef and its juices back to the pot.
- Deglaze the pan with the wine, scraping to release any brown bits from the bottom, and then simmer, cooking off the alcohol until the liquid is reduced by half.
- Add the beef stock, bring the mixture to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover the pot and cook until the beef is tender, about 45 minutes.
- Uncover the pot, stir in the barley, and bring the soup to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover, and simmer again, stirring occasionally, until the barley is cooked through, about 25-30 minutes. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper, and remove the bay leaf.
- Divide the soup among bowls, garnish with thyme, and serve.
- Prep Time: 20 minutes
- Cook Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
- Category: Beef
- Method: Stovetop
- Cuisine: Soup
Keywords: beef, barley, mushroom, soup
Cooking By the Numbers…
Step 1 – Prep the Veggies and Beef
Chop the onions, carrots, mushrooms, thyme, and rosemary, dice the celery, and mince the garlic.
Cut the beef into 1-inch cubes. Using paper towels, pat the pieces to get rid of any excess moisture. The drier the meat, the better the exterior crust will be, since residual water will cause it to steam instead of searing.
Season the beef with 1 teaspoon of the salt and 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper.
Step 2 – Saute the Beef
Add 1 tablespoon of the oil to a large heavy-bottomed saucepot like a Dutch oven, and swirl to coat the pan.
Working in batches to make sure you don’t crowd the pan and cause the meat to steam, sear the beef pieces on all sides for about 3 to 5 minutes, until a caramelized crust has formed.
Using a slotted spoon to make sure you leave the juice in the pot, transfer the beef pieces to a plate and set it aside.
Step 3 – Saute the Veggies and Aromatics
Reduce the heat to medium and add the remaining tablespoon of oil.
Once the oil is shimmering, add the onion, carrots, celery, mushrooms, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, thyme, and rosemary. Stirring to make sure everything is thoroughly coated, saute until the onions are translucent, for about 5 minutes.
Stir in the garlic, tomato paste, and bay leaf, and cook for 1 more minute. Browning the tomato paste before adding liquid allows the natural sugars in the paste to become concentrated, which enhances the flavor.
Step 4 – Add the Liquid and Simmer
Return the beef and any juices that have collected back to the pot.
Pour in the wine to deglaze the bottom of the pot, and use a spatula to scrape up any brown bits.
Make sure to use a wine like a Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, or a Bordeaux blend that’s not too fruity or sweet, so it doesn’t overwhelm the dish’s flavor. As a general rule of thumb, also avoid oaky varieties, which can become bitter when cooked.
To keep the dish completely alcohol-free, give this roundup of NA beverages a read for other deglazing suggestions like an AF wine, or a dark ale or stout. Just make sure the sugar content in whatever you use isn’t too high, since that sweetness can become more concentrated when it’s cooked down.
Simmer until the liquid is reduced by half, and then add the beef stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pot, and cook until the beef is tender, for about 45 minutes.
Step 5 – Cook the Barley and Serve
Rinse the barley to remove any dirt or dust particles.
Uncover the pot, stir in the barley, and bring the soup to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover, and simmer again, stirring occasionally, until the barley is cooked through. This will take about 25 to 30 minutes.
To make sure the barley isn’t overcooked, check it every 10 minutes or so. If it cooks for too long, the texture can get mushy or gummy.
Season to taste with additional salt and pepper if necessary, and remove the bay leaf.
More on the Beef, Please
Beef-wise, I reached for boneless beef chuck roast to make this dish, and will boldly state that it was exactly the right cut. Inexpensive to begin with, it also happened to be on sale at my local store. Win-win.
Chuck roast is collagen-rich, which means the meaty pieces will give up their toughness during the low-and-slow cooking process. While chuck might not be the best choice for quick-cooking, it’s excellent in recipes like this soup. The collagen turns into gelatin, which results in muscle softening and meat that’s ultimately moist and delectably tender.
Homemade stock is always superior to the store-bought stuff, but a quality brand can pack a punch of flavor. Nonetheless, if you happen to have homemade chicken stock on hand when you’re whipping up this soup, I’d reach for that over anything beef-flavored that comes in a box.
What soups will you concoct next? Share your slurp-able selections in the comments below! And don’t forget to give this recipe a five-star rating if you loved it.
Still hungry? Snag a spoon and belly up to these other beefy classics next:
- Slow Cooker Beef and Vegetable Stew with Guinness Stout
- Pot Roast Mushroom Soup
- Daube de Boeuf (Provencal Beef Stew)
Photos by Fanny Slater, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published by Lorna Kring on June 1, 2015. Last updated on January 19, 2022.
Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.
About Fanny Slater
Fanny Slater is a home-taught food enthusiast based in Wilmington, North Carolina who won the “Rachael Ray Show” Great American Cookbook Competition in 2014, and published her cookbook “Orange, Lavender & Figs” in 2016. Fanny is a food and beverage writer, recipe developer, and social media influencer. She was a co-host on the Food Network series “Kitchen Sink,” was featured on Cooking Channel’s longtime popular series “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and continues to appear regularly on the “Rachael Ray Show.”