An irresistible creamy lemon chicken barley soup that has tons of veggies, tender barley, and is hearty and comforting for chilly winter days!

bowls of chicken barley soup on white marble surface

I’ve got a confession. This soup was an accident.

Lemon chicken barley soup is the product of a smattering of heavy cream that was sitting in the back of my refrigerator leftover from another recipe I was testing. And nothing bugs me more than when you’ve got a tiny amount of cream that needs to be used up before it expires. You know, when a recipe calls for something like 3 ½ cups of cream? One cup too many to get away with a pint-size and ½ cup too short for a full quart. When you can’t justify adding heavy cream to your coffee because you know you overindulged in birthday cakes and holiday treats and such.

We’ve had the grossest weather in Houston as of late. It’s cloudy and gloomy all day and cold and rainy evenings. Days like these all I want is warm comfort food for dinner, and my lemon chicken barley soup wholly fits the bill.

It’s warm chicken broth and veggie-based with a generous squeeze of lemon juice and a dash of heavy cream to bring it all together. In the hopes of going healthier in January, I’ve swapped out my usual pasta for pearl barley, and I couldn’t be happier with the results. Herby, lemon-loaded chicken soup – so perfect for winter.

side shot showing bowl with spoon of chicken barley soup with carrots and celery visible

It’s so not a secret that I love soups. I mean just looking through the recent archives, I’ve made us salmon chowder, Moroccan stuffed pepper soup, green curry chicken noodle, and my all-time favorite tomato basil soup. So today’s soup is a little different. Before this soup, I had never actually meshed together barley with chicken before. I’ve made us beef and barley soup in the past, and so many of you guys loved it, I thought why not do a creamy take on chicken and barley? 

Think of this as an old-school cream of lemon soup, speckled with tender cooked barley and shredded chicken and veggies. One thing that utterly makes this soup though? The sprinkling or tarragon we add at the end. That licorice flavor does so much good work here.

Ingredients for lemon chicken barley soup:

  • olive oil
  • mirepoix
  • leeks
  • garlic
  • pepper (white pepper and red pepper flakes)
  • pearl barley
  • chicken stock
  • bay leaves
  • shredded chicken
  • lemon juice + zest
  • heavy cream
  • chopped tarragon

cast iron pot filled with prepared soup and a wooden spoon

What is mirepoix?

Mirepoix is a combination of chopped vegetables. Most often they are onions, celery, and carrots. Mirepoix is the ideal starter for most soups. I like to start my soups by sauteeing mirepoix in olive oil and/or butter until the veggies soften a bit. It instantly adds so much flavor!

What part of the leek do you use?

  1. Start by slicing through the white and yellow part of your leeks. The green leaves can be discarded, or you can pop them into the freezer for when you make chicken/vegetable stock (no really, it’s so good that way.)
  2. Now slice the leeks lengthwise and give them a good thorough wash under running water. Pat them dry and then thinly slice the leeks so that you have semi-circles. Your leeks are now ready to use in our lemon chicken barley soup!

spoon lifting prepared soup from bowl

Why use tarragon in this chicken soup?

Tarragon and lemon go together beautifully. Tarragon has almost a bittersweet, licorice flavor that elevates the flavors in this soup! It makes things fancy, without having to try very hard. Chicken and tarragon are truly made for each other!

How to make lemon chicken barley soup:

  1. Sauté the mirepoix and leeks in olive oil
  2. Season with garlic, red pepper flakes, and white pepper
  3. Toast the barley in the pot. Then add the bay leaves and the liquids and allow the soup to simmer for 20 minutes
  4. Add the chicken and lemon juice, stir to combine
  5. Combine the heavy cream and two tablespoons of the soup in a bowl, then add that to the soup pot
  6. Sprinkle with lemon zest and tarragon and serve!

bowl of chicken barley soup on white marble surrounded by fresh broken bread

Why do we add some of the soup to the cream before adding the cream to the soup?

Adding a few tablespoons of the hot soup to the cold cream is called ‘tempering.’ This process is used when you’re combining something really hot with something very cold. It’s also important to not skip this step as the soup has a ton of lemon juice and the cream could easily curdle. 

Usually, heavy cream is stable enough and won’t curdle because of lemon juice. However, heat plays a significant role and sometimes, even after tempering the cream,  it still can curdle. What I find works well is not allowing your soup to boil once you’ve added the cream to the stock pot.

What if I don’t like barley/am gluten-free?

If you don’t like barley, you can replace it with 1 cup of dry orzo pasta. If you decide to use pasta here and would like to cook it in the soup base, I suggest checking the package for cooking time suggestions (usually orzo requires 10 minutes.) So I would allow the soup to simmer for 10 minutes, then add the pasta during the last 10 minutes (before adding the chicken.) Other smalls shapes or pasta work equally well! I plan on making this with Acini de pepe or pearl couscous next time!

If you follow a gluten-free diet, I suggest cooking gluten-free pasta in a separate pot and either adding it in with the lemon zest and tarragon or serving pasta in bowls before ladling the soup over it. If you’re anticipating leftovers, I suggest keeping the pasta separately so it doesn’t disintegrate into the soup. You can omit the water from the recipe since you’re boiling the pasta separately.

close up lemon chicken soup bowl with spoon resting on white marble

Will the barley thicken the soup?

Lemon chicken barley soup will thicken a bit once it cools or you refrigerate it. To bring the soup back to the right consistency, I suggest adding a little water or broth when you reheat it!

How can I make this soup faster?

I’ve got a couple of tricks up my sleeve that will do the job!

  • grab a rotisserie chicken and shred it up and add it to the soup during the last 5 minutes
  • grab prechopped mirepoix from the produce section. This is a great little hack to make a homemade meal and spend less time chopping veggies!

Hearty, warm and so filling! Don’t forget to serve this with tons of crusty bread. And if you’re feeling ambitious, I’d suggest making your own! 🙂

Yield: 6 servings

Winter Lemon Chicken Barley Soup

Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 35 minutes
Total Time 50 minutes

An irresistible creamy lemon chicken barley soup that has tons of veggies, tender barley and is hearty and comforting for chilly winter days!

Winter Lemon Chicken Barley Soup


  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 cups mirepoix (equal parts chopped onions, carrots, and celery)
  • 1 large leek, whites only, thinly sliced
  • 10 cloves garlic, minced
  • ⅛ teaspoon white pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
  • ⅔ cup pearl barley
  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 cups cooked chicken, shredded
  • 4-6 tablespoons lemon juice + zest of 1 lemon
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons chopped tarragon


  1. SAUTE: Place a dutch oven or a stock pot over medium-high heat. Drizzle in the olive oil and add the mirepoix and leeks and sauté the veggies for 4-5 minutes or until the veggies soften a bit, add the garlic and pepper flakes during the last 30 seconds and stir until fragrant. Season the veggies with a big pinch of salt and white pepper and add the barley. 
  2. SIMMER: Let the barley toast for 1 minute, stirring as required so nothing sticks or burns. Pour in the chicken stock along with 1 cup of water, and bay leaves. Allow the soup to come to a boil. Lower the heat to low and cover; let simmer for 20-23 minutes or until the barley is mostly cooked. Add the chicken and 4 tablespoons of lemon juice and kick the back up to medium-high and let the soup gain a simmer, then lower the heat to low for 5 minutes, at this point you don’t want it to have any bubbles on the surface. Taste and adjust with additional lemon juice as desired. Keep in mind that the cream will mellow out the flavor a bit. We like it with 6 tablespoons of lemon juice!
  3. FINISH: Pour the cream into a small bowl and add 2 tablespoons of the prepared soup (just the broth if you can) and stir. Pour this cream mixture into the prepared soup while stirring let it heat through for 1 minute but make sure to not let the soup boil from here on out! Turn off the heat stir in the lemon zest and tarragon. Serve topped with chopped parsley and with tons of crusty bread, if desired!

Have you made this recipe?

If you enjoyed this recipe, please consider leaving a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ rating and a comment below. You can also share a picture on Instagram with the hashtag #LITTLESPICEJAR, I'd love to see what you made!

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