I was on a college road trip when I had my first taste of Mushroom Barley Soup. My friends and I stopped at a roadside deli—I wish I could remember the name of the place. What I do remember is that piping hot bowl of delicious soup. It was love at first bite.
You can find this soup on most Jewish deli menus. The dish has roots in the Ashkenazi Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. Mushrooms were popular in these cold-weather countries because they could be harvested, dried, and stored for later use. In my friend Etti Hadar’s family memoir, her Polish uncle Dov Levin talks about how his mother used to string up rows of mushrooms with a thread and needle in the attic. They would hang the mushrooms near the chimney; the heat of the stove would dry them out faster that way.
Barley was also plentiful and easy to grow in the Eastern European climate, making it a common addition to hearty winter dishes like soup and cholent. Barley’s history goes back even further; in fact, it is arguably the world’s first and most ancient cultivated grain. It is also one of the Seven Species mentioned in the Bible.
Ever since that fateful college road trip, I’ve worked on creating my own soup recipe to achieve what I consider the perfect balance of mushroom barley flavor. I’ve stuck to simple, natural ingredients. Inspired by Uncle Dov’s memoir, I added dried mushrooms with their soaking liquid to the broth, along with fresh mushrooms seared golden brown. The combination adds complex flavor to an otherwise simple soup. A long, slow simmer reduces the broth, making the soup thick and rich.
This robust, filling soup makes a hearty lunch or dinner on a chilly autumn day. Despite being “comfort food,” it is surprisingly healthy. Barley is rich in dietary fiber and selenium. The grain also contains beta glucan, a complex sugar that can help to lower cholesterol. Enjoy!
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Mushroom Barley Soup
- 3 quarts chicken or mushroom stock (low sodium okay)
- 1 1/4 cups pearl barley
- 2 bay leaves
- 6 dried shitake mushrooms
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 cup chopped celery, including leaves
- 1 cup peeled and chopped carrots
- 2 cloves crushed garlic
- 1 lb white mushrooms, scrubbed and sliced
- Salt and pepper
- Pour chicken or mushroom stock into a large stockpot and bring to a boil. Stir in the barley, add the bay leaves, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered. Set your timer for 2:15 (2 hours 15 minutes) starting now.
- While the soup simmers, place dried mushrooms in a separate small saucepan. Add 3 cups of water to the saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. As soon as the water boils, remove saucepan from heat and let the mushrooms soak for 20 minutes.
- Drain the mushroom water by straining it through a coffee filter (use a mesh strainer or colander to hold the filter). Reserve the mushroom water.
- Chop the soaked, softened mushrooms into small pieces and reserve.
- Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the onion to the skillet and sauté till softened.
- Add the celery and carrots and sauté for 5 more minutes till everything is browning and starting to caramelize.
- Add the soaked chopped dried mushroom pieces and crushed garlic, sauté for 2 more minutes. Your kitchen should smell really good right about now!
- Scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the skillet. Pour the strained mushroom broth into the skillet, bring to a boil, stir. Cook for 2 more minutes till mixture is hot and bubbly. Add the contents of the skillet to the simmering stockpot with the broth and barley.
- Without rinsing the skillet, heat 1 tbsp of olive oil over medium high heat, tilting to coat the bottom of the pan. Spread half of the sliced white mushrooms in a single layer at the bottom of the skillet. Sprinkle them with salt and pepper and turn heat to high. Let the mushrooms sear without stirring.
- After 2 minutes, stir the mushrooms continuously for another 1-2 minutes until they are seared golden brown and shrink to about half their size.
- Pour the seared mushrooms into the soup pot. Heat the last 1 tbsp olive oil in the skillet and repeat the process for the remaining mushrooms. Add the rest of the seared mushrooms to the soup pot, stir to blend all ingredients.
- Reduce heat to a low simmer. Let the soup cook uncovered until your timer goes off (2 hours 15 minutes total cooking time), or until the barley is completely tender and the soup is nicely thickened. Add water during the simmer if the soup becomes overly thick. At the end of cooking, season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.
Other Great Recipe Ideas
In Erika’s Kitchen: Winter Greens Soup with Mushrooms
The Pioneer Woman: French Onion Soup Stuffed Mushrooms
Simply Recipes: Mushroom Risotto
Kalyn’s Kitchen: Chicken Barley Soup
Weelicious: Barley, Chicken and Broccoli Salad