I'm going to let you in on a little secret: A soup like beef and barley is almost exactly the same thing as a beef stew, only wetter. So nearly all the questions that come up about how to make a great version of such a soup—how to ensure the beef is juicy and tender, how to make it flavorful, how long to cook it—are the same for beef stew, and, thus, so are the answers.
We've gone pretty deep on beef stew before, but I'll recap the main points here while discussing a beef and barley soup recipe, with links to articles that explore those main points more fully.
Choose the Right Beef
Beef cooked into a soup faces the same challenge as beef cooked into a stew: We want to cook it long enough that its flavor can infuse the surrounding liquid, making a soup that tastes truly beefy, but we don't want the beef drying out or becoming tough in the process. That means going for collagen-rich cuts.
Collagen is the tough connective tissue you find in well-used muscle groups. The tender cuts of beef that we typically reserve for quick-cooking applications—the tenderloin, the strip, the ribeye, the hanger, et cetera—are low in collagen. Extended cooking dries them out.
Collagen-rich cuts, like chuck and short rib, on the other hand, are tough when cooked for a brief period of time, but tenderize with low, slow cooking. Their collagen breaks down and converts into gelatin, which gives the meat moistness even as water is cooked out of the muscle fibers.
I tested the most popular collagen-rich cuts when looking for the best ways to make beef stew, and the results apply for this soup as well. In terms of cost and convenience, your best bet is a chuck roast, sometimes sold as a chuck roll. It comes from the cow's shoulder and performs very well in long-cooking dishes like soups and stews.
The main downside is that, because the chuck is a cut that includes several different parts of the shoulder muscle system, you end up with some variation in the pot—some pieces are fattier, some are leaner, some are slightly more tender, and some slightly less. (Some folks may see this as a feature rather than a bug.)
Another top stewing pick, and therefore a top soup pick as well, is the short rib. It can be quite a bit more expensive than the chuck, but the short rib has some distinct advantages. First, it's a more consistent cut than the chuck, so you get less variation in the pot from one piece to the next. Second, it's extra delicious, with an even deeper beefy flavor than the chuck (which, I should stress, is no slouch in the flavor department).
The short rib also comes with another advantage: It's easy to find it bone-in. In a soup like this, those bones can really offer a boost in flavor and body. I like to remove the bones from the short ribs before I start cooking them, so that I have a bit more control over the size and shape of the beef chunks in the finished dish.
Using a flexible filleting knife, follow the contours of the bone, hugging it closely.
Deboning a short rib takes a small amount of butchery skill, but not too much. Simply slide a filleting knife around and under each bone, making sure it hugs the bone the entire time. Follow the bone's contours, and you'll get it out. Or, you could ask the butcher or someone in your grocery's meat department to do it for you—just let them know you want to keep the bones.
In my tests, blind-tasters preferred the soup made with short ribs and their bones, describing it as "beefier" and more flavorful. Both versions are good, so you don't have to use short ribs if the ease and low cost of chuck appeal more, but it's worth knowing what you're trading off when you make the decision. (If you're at a butcher's shop, a third option is to buy the chuck roast and get a pound or so of beef bones on the side.) Read my full article on the best long-cooking beef cuts to learn more about your options.
Brown It Better
Most beef stew and soup recipes have you start by browning the meat (and if they don't, run away!). Browning builds excellent flavor, but it comes at a price: The browned bits of meat dry out in the process.
To solve this, we recommend that you buy the beef in large pieces, brown those, and only then cut them up into smaller, bite-size bits. This gives you the best of both worlds: a flavorful soup and a high proportion of meat that's juicy and tender.
If your beef is already cut into stewing pieces, you can still make it work: Simply brown half of it. If it's a very large cut, like a chuck roast, you can cut it into steaks first to get slightly more surface area for browning, though this will require browning in batches in the soup pot.
Just like with a minestrone, we want to sauté our aromatic vegetables as well. It produces a more flavorful broth than if we just dumped the vegetables into the soup raw.
After I've browned my beef and removed it from the pot, I add diced carrots, onion, celery, and garlic to the pot and cook them until they're very lightly browned, using the liquid they initially exude to scrape up any browned bits the beef's left behind on the bottom of the pot.
Then I scrape them out of the pot and set them aside as well. That's because the beef needs time to cook, and if we boil the vegetables for the same amount of time, they'll become flavorless wads of mush. Don't worry: We'll add them back to the pot long enough to tenderize them and get more of their flavor into the broth. Read more about the science of beef browning for soups, braises, and stews in our full article on the subject.
One final note: Unlike when I'm making a stew, I don't toss my beef in any flour for a soup. The flour acts as a thickener, which is great for a stew, but, at least for me, isn't something I want in a brothy dish like soup. I've seen some beef and barley recipes that do call for flour, but I'd argue that what they really produce is a beef and barley stew, not soup.
Use Chicken Stock (Usually)
With the beef and vegetables browned, the next step is to add stock to the pot to begin the soup part of the dish. In most cases, that stock should be chicken stock.
This tip always gets at least a little pushback from readers. "Why in the world would I use chicken stock in a beef soup?" they write. It's a fair question.
The answer is that if you have real beef stock, then by all means, you should use it here. By "real," I mean a stock that's made by roasting beef bones, then simmering them in water with aromatics for hours upon hours.
The problem is that most of us don't have real beef stock, since it's far more labor-intensive and less versatile than chicken stock. I often keep containers of homemade chicken stock in my freezer, but I almost never keep beef stock on hand.
As for the store-bought options, there's no contest: You should avoid store-bought beef stock in almost all cases, since it's rarely, if ever, made using any significant amount of beef. Instead, it's flavored with yeast proteins to simulate a beefy flavor—a simulation that doesn't work very well.
Good store-bought chicken stock, while not as good as homemade, is actually made with (and tastes of) chicken. And chicken is a sufficiently neutral protein that your broth, once you've simmered your beef in it for a while, won't just taste beefy; it'll taste better than a similar broth made with a box of "beef" stock.
Kenji goes into more depth on the problems with store-bought beef broth in this article.
Enhance the Broth
With the stock in the pot, it's time to make sure it tastes good. First, we want to add the cut-up beef (and any beef bones and accumulated juices) back to the pot. It will foam initially, so you'll need to skim the broth once or twice to get rid of that gunk.
Next, we want to add some aromatics. I like to make a small sachet of herbs, like fresh thyme sprigs and a bay leaf, along with some whole peppercorns. The sachet is just for ease of fishing it all out later (cheesecloth works for this, as does a tea ball).
Now it's time to gently simmer the soup until the beef is tender. This is one point on which soups differ from stews. A stew gets better flavor through gentle cooking in an oven, the dry heat browning its surface. With a soup, though, the ratio of liquid to meat is too high, so surface browning is out of the question. The stovetop, therefore, works just fine here.
During the last half hour of cooking, right about when the beef is nearing doneness, I fish out any bones, along with the herb sachet, and add the barley and sautéed vegetables. The barley will have some surface starch on it that will help thicken the broth very slightly, and the vegetables will further flavor the broth while retaining some of their own essential character.
A splash of fish sauce, if you like, can add even more depth and richness to the soup. Its fishiness disappears into the complex blend of aromas and flavors, leaving behind nothing but a more profound sense of savoriness.
As soon as the barley is tender, it's dinnertime. Behold: a soup that's all the better for taking its cues from a related category of food.
Stew on that for a minute.