Beef barley soup is perfect for lunch, dinner, or a hearty snack year-round, but it's especially good on cooler, gloomier days.

Make-Ahead Meal: Beef Barley Vegetable Soup

I love to cook, almost as much as I love to eat, sleep, and read. Still, when it’s gloomy outside, nothing can pry me from my spot on the couch to put together an actual meal. It would be easy to fall into the takeout trap (and I certainly have fallen into that trap many many times), but it’s also easy to avoid it. Eating healthy, homemade meals every day is just one big pot of soup away.

I’ve been making soup and freezing it for a while now. It works out really well in my house, since I’m home for lunch every day and I don’t always want to make dinner, either. There are only two of us, so when I make a big batch of soup, stew, or chili, it probably won’t get eaten (or at least not happily) before it goes bad. Unless, of course, I freeze it. I’ve been really into freezing meals for a few months, and it’s worked out so well. I’ve realized that there are many things that really maintain their quality in the freezer, my favorites being buffalo chicken thighs and legs, braised meats, soup, pizza dough, and homemade tomato sauce. These are my freezer staples, and they help get us through cooking slumps where I’m less interested in cooking than I am in eating.

After a busy several months full of cooking and celebrating holidays and birthdays, I’m ready to take a break from nightly cooking. This week, I’ve decided to take on three big batches of soup, to be frozen in 16 oz. portions and 32 oz. portions. The smaller portions will serve as individual lunch-sized bowls of soup, while the larger ones will be meals for two. 

My first soup up is a beef vegetable and barley soup. It’s full of delicious vegetables and slow-cooked beef. Traditionally, I’ve made this soup with cubes of beef, but for the freezer (and extra deliciousness), this recipe uses shredded beef from the crock pot. It’s so easy to put together and even easier to eat. 

First, trim the excess fat off of your beef roast and season your beef well with salt and pepper. Put it into the slow cooker on low with halved onions, diced carrots and celery, thyme, rosemary, a little bit of red wine, and some low-sodium beef broth. As the beef cooks, it will release delicious juices, which can go into your soup later. (Note: I forgot the celery this time, but it really adds a ton of flavor, so try it!)

Cook the beef roast with vegetables in the crock pot.
Cook the beef roast with vegetables in the crock pot.

Let the beef cook on low for 8 to 10 hours (I did mine overnight), or until the meat is fork tender and shreds easily when you pull at it. Then, shred it! How big your shredded bits of beef are is really up to your individual taste. I like mine to be on the thinner side.

The beef should shred easily with a fork.
The beef should shred easily with a fork.

Now, it’s time to put the soup itself together. Strain the juices from the slow cooker into a large pot (be careful not to burn yourself — the bowl will be hot). Add beef broth or vegetable broth to bulk up the liquid. The amount will depend on how much liquid you had after the beef finished and how thick or thin you prefer your soup. I added about 8 cups of broth for a thicker soup. Keep in mind that the barley will suck up a lot of liquid, so you’ll want to have more than you think you need.

Bring the broth to a boil. To the liquid, add a pound of dried barley and cook for about 45 minutes. Then, add canned whole peeled tomatoes (you could also use diced, but I like the bigger pieces), diced carrots and celery, green beans (fresh or frozen), corn (fresh or frozen), and chopped onion. You can really add any vegetables you want to this soup, but these are some of my favorites. 

After the flavors have had time to develop and the vegetables are cooked through, add shredded kale, spinach, or escarole to the broth. I used kale, but go with what you like! This won’t take as long to cook, so make sure you add it separately from the other vegetables.

Add the kale or other leafy greens last so they don't overcook.
Add the kale or other leafy greens last so they don’t overcook.

Add in your shredded beef. Depending on the size of your beef roast, you can add all or some of the beef. I left some out to freeze separately for later use, but if you like your soup extra beefy, feel free to add it all!

And that’s it! If you’re going to eat the soup now, serve it hot, preferably with some delicious crusty bread on the side. If you’re planning to freeze it, let the soup cool before ladling it into containers. Make sure your containers are freezer-safe. I really like these Reditainer deli containers and have them in both the 16 oz. and 32 oz. They’re freezer safe, dishwasher safe, microwave safe, and I haven’t had any trouble with leaking (yet). Freezer bags can work, too, but make sure you don’t reheat in the bags.

When you’re ready to reheat the frozen soup, defrost in the refrigerator overnight. If you’ve used the Reditainer deli containers, I’ve found that microwaving with the lid off for about a minute will loosen them right up, as well. You can then put the soup into a covered pot and reheat. Make sure you add a little liquid (water or broth) so the parts that defrost first won’t burn. Reheat completely before eating.

Make-Ahead Beef Barley Soup
An easy make-ahead beef barley soup to help you avoid the takeout trap.
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  1. Beef roast (size and variety may vary depending on your preferences)
  2. 2 small onions, halved
  3. 1 small onion, diced
  4. 3 large carrots, diced
  5. 3 stalks celery, diced
  6. 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  7. 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
  8. 1 cup red wine
  9. 10-12 cups low-sodium beef broth or vegetable broth
  10. Salt and pepper, to taste
  11. 1 pound pearl barley
  12. 1 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
  13. 1/2 pound green beans, fresh or frozen
  14. 1/2 pound corn, fresh or frozen
  15. 1 pound kale, shredded
For the beef
  1. Add two of the carrots, two stalks of celery, and two halved onions to the bottom of a crock pot with red wine and two cups of broth. Add fresh herbs and season. Add beef roast to the top of this and cover. Cook on low 8-10 hours or overnight, or until beef shreds easily with a fork.
For the soup
  1. Strain the cooking liquid from the beef into a large pot. Add remaining broth and bring to a boil.
  2. Add barley and cook according to package directions, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, shred the beef.
  3. Once barley is cooked, add remaining vegetables except kale and beef. Allow vegetables to heat through and finish cooking before adding kale.
  4. Add kale and cook until just wilted. Season to taste and serve immediately, or freeze for later use.
  1. This soup freezes very well, but the barley will continue to absorb the broth. To reheat, add more broth until the soup reaches the consistency you prefer. The base recipe makes for a thick soup.
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