Most mushroom barley soup recipes rely heavily on tomatoes for taste. This one doesn’t. In this version, the mushrooms are the star of the show. And the result is stunning comfort food, perfect for cold weather. That’s why I call it Intensely Flavored Mushroom Barley Soup.
It’s vegetarian too. Vegan, in fact. But when you taste it, you’ll be surprised that it doesn’t contain any beef. Inspired by a Mark Bittman recipe, appropriately entitled, Beefy Soup Without the Beef, it is hearty enough for a main course.
With lots of different vegetables and just a hint of tomato taste, it will warm you up as it nourishes you, body and soul.
The key to its “mushroominess” is the combination of dried and fresh mushrooms. Although dried mushrooms are expensive, a little goes a long way. Reconstituted in boiling water, they provide both a nice mushroom flavor and aroma.
If you blanch at my silly term, “mushroominess,” go for the sophisticated explanation – umami. It’s the fifth taste, after sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. This soup gets its umami from soy sauce as well as from lots of mushrooms. By the way, if you’re interested in umami, check out the fascinating Umami Information Center.
You can increase the amount of dried mushrooms, but I wouldn’t lower it to less than the specified 1/2 ounce. Also, I’ve tried it with both dried portobello (portabella) and porcini mushrooms- both work fine. Dried mushooms are rather expensive for a vegetable. If cost is a big issue, it would be worth considering dried shiitakes. They are less expensive than dried porcini and portobello (portabella) mushrooms. As a common ingredient in Asian dishes, they may also be easier to find than the two other varieties. According to a Cook’s Illustrated taste test, dried shiitakes taste meatier but less mushroomy than their porcini counterparts. One site that compared shiitakes to portobello (portabella) describes the former as smokier in taste.
Bittman uses a ratio of 1 ounce of dried porcini mushrooms to 1/4 pound of fresh in his mushroom barley soup. The first time I made my own version, I found inexpensive bulk portobello (portabella) mushrooms in the bulk section of a store, so I used the full 1.5 ounces. The second time, I found only packaged dried mushrooms, which are more expensive. I cut the quantity of dried mushrooms in half (to 1/2 an ounce) and still got the benefit of the intense flavor and aroma.
Fresh mushrooms are mostly water. Whether you use common white mushrooms or portobellos, they contain about 90% water. I like to cook them first, before adding the fresh mushrooms to the soup, in order to draw out and concentrate their flavor. But I save the water that leaches out of them as they cook, adding it to the soup as part of the liquid. That way, the fresh mushrooms are tastier and their liquid helps to flavor the broth.
Barley in soup
- Use either pearl or hulled barley for this soup (or any barley soup or stew.) For the nutrition and taste differences between them, see my earlier post comparing pearl and hulled barley. They’ll use about the same amount of liquid, but pearl barley cooks more quickly. Hulled barley is chewier, at least to me.
- I’ve specified that the barley cooks in this Intensely Flavored Mushroom Barley soup. That’s the way it’s typically done in most barley soup recipes I’ve seen in cookbooks. But several commenters on my earlier post about pearl and hulled barley pointed out that if you cook the barley separately and add it at the last minute, the soup stays more liquid and doesn’t turn into a stew if you let it sit. Their suggestion doesn’t change the flavor of the soup, because the taste comes from the vegetables, not the barley. Of course, if you want the leftover soup to stay liquid, you have to add the barley on a bowl-by-bowl basis, not all at the end.
Intensely Flavored Mushroom Barley Soup
This vegan mushroom barely soup is rich in umami. What's that you ask? It's that fifth taste that our tastebuds love and so will you.
- .5 ounce Dried portobello (portabella) or porcini mushrooms
- 3 cups Boiling water
- 3 tablespoons Olive oil
- 1 cup Chopped onion About 1 medium onion or 4 ounces.
- 2 cups Chopped carrots About 3-4 medium carrots or 12 ounces.
- 1 cup Chopped celery About 2 stalks or 5 ounces.
- 16 ounces Chopped fresh white button or portobello (portabella) mushrooms Quarter them if small, chop into smaller pieces if large.
- 2 cups Barley Use either pearl or hulled, noting that hulled takes longer to cook.
- 2 tablespoons Soy sauce Low sodium soy sauce works fine.
- 1-2 Bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
- 4 cups Water, vegetable stock, or mushroom broth made from mushroom bouillon cubes I used water.
Soak the dried mushrooms in the boiling water for about 15-20 minutes. Then drain them, reserving the water (don't throw it away) and chop the re-hydrated mushrooms into bite-sized pieces. Set the water and mushrooms aside.
Heat the olive oil in a large pan. Add the chopped onions and cook them on medium heat for 3-5 minutes until transparent. Add the chopped carrots and celery and cook the vegetables an additional 3-5 minutes. Remove them to a large pot.
Raise the heat under the pan to high and add the fresh mushrooms, in batches if there are too many to fit comfortably in a single layer. Cook them stirring occasionally, for 3-5 minutes until the mushrooms begin to render their water/juices. Remove the mushrooms and their water/juices to the pot.
Add the final tablespoon of oil to the pan. Once it is hot, add the barley and cook stirring frequently for 1-2 minutes. Then add the chopped dried (rehydrated) mushrooms and continue cooking for another 1 minute. Once the barley and rehydrated mushrooms are heated and a bit toasted, add them to the pot.
Add the bay leaf or leaves, the mushroom soaking water, and the 4 additional cups of water or stock to the pot. Bring the soup to a boil, lower the heat and cook for 20-30 minutes for pearl barley or double that time for hulled barley. Add more water if required. Add soy sauce and tomato paste. Taste, then add salt if necessary and a good dose of freshly ground pepper.
As noted in the post and in my previous post on the differences between the types of barley, both pearl and hulled barley expand when cooked. An alternative method of making this soup would be to cook the barley in the 4+ cups of water/broth separately from the soup. Then if you add the cooked barley on a bowl-by-bowl basis, you'll avoid having the leftover soup turn more stew-like as the barley sits in it. Of course, that means you have to refrigerate the leftover soup and barley separately.
For a mushroom barley soup with less of an intense mushroom taste and more tomatoes, try this version.