This chicken soup with barley is my favorite meal-prep recipe. It’s rich and comforting, and it freezes perfectly. Pearled barley has a relatively quick cooking time, making it perfect for adding to chicken soup.
But first, let’s talk about barley. It’s one of my favorite grains to add to soup because it’s so easy to cook. It releases some starch into the broth, lending a creamier texture, like in this mushroom barley stew recipe.
What is barley?
Barley is an amazing grain that’s perfect for soups, stews, and salads. There are three main barley varieties: unhulled, hulled, and pearled.
- Unhulled barley: Barley naturally has an indigestible outer husk. This husk (also called a hull) must be removed before cooking. If you buy unhulled barley, you must soak it overnight before cooking it for 40–50 minutes.
- Hulled barley: Hulled barley means that the outer husk has been removed, but the bran layer–making it a whole grain–is kept intact. The cooking time is about 40 minutes; you need not soak it beforehand.
- Pearled barley: Pearled barley has had the husk removed, and it’s also been polished to remove the bran layer. While it’s not a whole grain, it’s still an excellent source of fiber. The cooking time is 25–30 minutes, with no need for soaking.
The benefit of pearled barley is that it has a very fast cooking time; however, because the bran layer and husk have been removed, it’s no longer a whole grain. If you don’t mind a slightly longer cooking time and you want to increase your intake of whole grains, opt for hulled barley instead of pearled.
What I love about this grain is that you can add hulled or pearled barley straight to the soup without soaking them first. They absorb all the flavor of your soup, release some of their starch, and make for a creamy, nutritious finished dish.
One thing you should know is that barley continues to absorb liquid, even after it finishes cooking. The next day, you may need to loosen up the soup with a little water.
How to make this chicken soup with barley:
Ready to start cooking? Here’s what you need:
- Whole chicken, but you can use a cut-up chicken instead; I prefer whole chicken, personally.
- Aromatics for the broth and soup, including onion, carrots, celery, and garlic.
- Spices for the soup, including dry thyme, garlic powder, paprika, and plenty of crushed red pepper.
- Pearled or hulled barley; you can also substitute farro or brown rice and adjust cooking time as needed.
- Lemon juice and parsley add a nice, herby brightness at the end of cooking.
Start with the broth:
- Cover the whole bird with water and aromatics. Bring it to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 1 hour and 30 minutes. The meat will almost fall off the bone.
- Remove the bird from the pot and rapid-simmer the broth until it reduces further. It will darken in color, and the flavors will intensify. Strain it through a sieve and discard the solids.
- Once the chicken is cool enough to handle, shred it from the bones and add the shredded chicken to the bowl of broth. This keeps it from drying out as you prepare the soup. Reserve the carcass for homemade stock, if you like.
Note: If you are short on time, skip the homemade broth. Use a store-bought rotisserie chicken and store-bought stock instead.
Make the soup:
- Once the legwork of the broth has been completed, make the soup. Fry up some diced aromatics–onion, carrots, and celery with their leaves–and add a few spices with melted butter.
- Add the barley along with the reserved broth and shredded chicken. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until the barley is tender.
- Finish with lemon juice and minced parsley.
While it may seem like a labor-intensive project, most of the time is inactive. It’s perfect for meal prepping on Sunday evening, and the soup freezes perfectly.
Chicken Soup with Barley
- Large pot
- Fine mesh sieve
- 4- pound chicken, giblets reserved for another use
- 1 yellow onion, scrubbed and quartered (peels left on, if you like)
- 3 carrots, scrubbed and cut into thirds
- 1 head of garlic, halved crosswise
- 4 ribs of celery, rinsed and cut into thirds
- 12 cups water, plus more if needed
- Salt and black pepper
Chicken barley soup:
- 1 tablespoon neutral oil
- 1 yellow onion, peeled and diced
- 3 ribs celery with leaves, trimmed and diced; leaves minced
- 4 carrots, peeled, trimmed, and sliced into rounds
- 2 tablespoons butter, optional
- 1 teaspoon dry thyme
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- Crushed red pepper, to taste
- 1 cup pearled barley rinsed
- 8 cups chicken broth (from the recipe above), plus 2–3 cups water if needed
- ⅓ cup loosely packed parsley, minced; a pinch reserved for garnish
- 1 lemon, juiced
- Salt and pepper to taste
Prepare the chicken and broth:
- Place the chicken in a large pot and add the onion, carrots, garlic, and celery. Season with 1–2 teaspoons salt. Don’t go overboard with salting; it will cook down, and you can always add more later. Add a few cracks of black pepper. Bring to a boil and then cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 1 hour and 30 minutes.
- Carefully remove the chicken from the pot using tongs. Transfer it to a large bowl and let it cool.
- Return the broth to a rapid simmer over medium heat. Simmer for 30 minutes to reduce the broth further. It will be a dark golden brown.
- Strain the broth into a large bowl through a fine-mesh sieve. Discard solids.
- Pick the chicken from the bones and shred the meat with your fingers. Transfer the shredded meat to the bowl of strained broth to keep it moist. Reserve the carcass for stock if you like.
Prepare the soup:
- Wipe out the pot used to make the broth. You may wish to give it a quick rinse in the sink if you like.
- Place it on a burner over medium-high heat. Add the neutral oil, and once hot, add the onions, celery with minced leaves, and carrots. Season all over with salt and pepper. Cook for 7–10 minutes until they begin to soften around the edges.
- Melt the butter into the vegetables. Once bubbly, add the thyme, garlic powder, and paprika. Add a few generous shakes of crushed red pepper. Cook for 45 seconds until fragrant.
- Add the barley and cook for 1 minute until lightly toasted. Season again with a pinch of salt.
Simmer the soup:
- Pour in the broth and shredded chicken. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30–40 minutes or until the barley is tender. The barley will absorb a lot of liquid; add 2–3 cups of water as needed at the end of cooking. Taste and adjust the seasonings to your preferences.
Finish the soup:
- Stir in the minced parsley and lemon juice. Taste and season, and then turn off the heat.
- Ladle the soup into bowls. Garnish with more fresh parsley. Enjoy!