What can you say about beef barley soup? It’s a classic. Rich and meaty with all that hearty, soft and comforting barley. It’s the best.
The only problem with it is that barley takes a while to cook. Around 40 minutes, typically. If you imagine getting home from work and whipping up a pot of soup, this is not a good choice. By the time you get your ingredients into the pot with some nice stock, add in the barley and bring it up to a simmer, then cook it – you’re looking at an hour, maybe as much as 2.
So, if you want beef barley soup on a weeknight, you pretty much have to use the slow cooker. You can get everything in there in the morning and it will be ready when you get home. No fuss at all.
The slow cooker version of beef barley soup is so convenient so I’m giving you that recipe. Also, in case you decide to make soup on a day when you’re at home and have time, I’m also giving the instructions for making it on the stove in a pot.
In addition to the variation of stove or slow cooker, there is one other choice that you need to make. That is whether to brown your meat and vegetables first or not.
Well, strictly speaking, yes, you should. And yes, it does make a difference. But does it make enough of a difference for the amount of extra time it takes? That’s debatable and depends on how much you love cooking and how much time you actually have.
Here’s what’s involved in browning the meat and vegetables. You need to brown the meat in at least two batches, probably three. Cube the beef and season it with salt and pepper. Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Add about 1/3 of the beef cubes, leaving space around each cube. This is so that the meat actually gets to have contact with high heat which will brown it. If the meat is too close together, it drops the pan temperature and the meat cubes are crowded, which results in more steaming than browning. When the meat is brown underneath, flip it over (I use tongs). Brown it on all sides. Transfer it to a plate, add a tablespoon more of oil and another third of the meat. Repeat with this second batch of meat and then again with the final third of meat.
Once all the meat is browned and removed from the pan, add your vegetables. This will be chopped onion, chopped carrots and chopped celery. Cook stirring occasionally until softened. Transfer the vegetables to the meat plate. Add some water to the pan (about 1/2 cup) and scrape up any flavorful bits from the bottom of the pan. Pour that into your soup pot along with the veggies and meat. Then proceed with the recipe as instructed.
As you can see, browning the meat adds quite a bit of time. It’s not a short simple step. It results in a deeper flavor but not by very much. If you’re in a hurry, you can totally skip it (as I’ve done in the recipe below) and you will still have delicious soup.
One thing to be sure of is to use a good-flavored beef stock or broth especially if you’re not browning your meat first. The stock or broth will add so much meaty flavor and will make up a bit for not browning the beef. I used Swanson® Beef Cooking Stock. It has so much rich beef flavor and is a full-bodied cooking base. It doesn’t have a lot of extra seasoning either so it’s mostly the beef flavor, which is perfect as a foundation for soup.
*You do not need to brown the meat and vegetables first to make this recipe. But if you want to brown them, the instructions are in the blog post above.