Easy Vegetarian Split Pea Soup with Barley

A soul-warming September soup full of fall flavors

Photo: Kristi Bissell
We hope you give this soul-warming soup a try, as we can all use a little comfort food these days. This Easy Vegetarian Split Pea Soup with Barley is both satisfying and nourishing in the best of ways.

Taste of Norway Editor
The Norwegian American

Looking for a savory, smoky, and satisfying version of vegetarian (vegan, even!) split pea soup? This one can compete with its meaty counterparts any day of the week.

Earthy yellow split peas team up with hearty pearl barley in this recipe for a soul-warming, nourishing soup that is a meal in and of itself. And thanks to a few special ingredients, this Vegetarian Split Pea Soup with Barley delivers BIG flavor.

And did I mention it can be on the table in less than an hour? Let’s get to the details!

Why this recipe works

This Easy Vegetarian Split Pea Soup with Barley deserves a spot in your soup rotation because:

•    Split peas and pearl barley cook at about the same rate and together create a delicious, hearty base with a lovely textural contrast in this nourishing soup;

•    It includes smoked paprika which gives the soup a smoky quality similar to what you might get with ham or bacon in a more traditional split pea soup; and

•    I’ve added a few secret ingredients that really contribute to a surprising depth of flavor for such a simple vegetarian soup.

About the ingredients

•    Yellow split peas: Split peas, both green and yellow, are a somewhat underappreciated member of the pulse family. Nutritionally dense, these little gems contain 16 grams of protein and 14 grams of fiber per cup! They also are a good source of nutrients including calcium, iron, magnesium, copper, selenium, and folate. They DO NOT require soaking and cook in only 30-40 minutes. Their flavor is subtly earthy, and they have a comforting soft texture when cooked. Definitely a powerhouse ingredient that deserves a spot in your pantry!

•    Pearl barley: It is important to use pearl barley in this recipe (also sometimes labeled medium barley). Hulled barley takes much longer to cook and will not soften in time, and a quick, parcooked barley will turn to mush before the yellow split peas are finished cooking.

•    Onions, carrots and garlic: These versatile vegetables provide the aromatic profile of this delicious soup, and some lovely color from the carrots as well.

•    Vegetable or chicken broth: Obviously if you want this soup to be vegetarian/vegan, use vegetable broth. But if you are just an omnivore who loves vegetable-based soups (raising my own hand here), feel free to use chicken broth. It provides a deep, rich flavor to the soup.

•    Dried bay leaf, thyme, rosemary, and parsley: So many herbs! Each brings its unique fresh flavor to the finished soup.

•    Smoked paprika: Smoked paprika, also known as pimenton, is made of chiles that are smoked over oak fires. Hence the appealing smoky flavor. It is NOT spicy like chili powder, however. Instead it is a little sweet and piquant more like traditional paprika.

•    Baking soda: Seems like a strange ingredient here, doesn’t it? While this might seem odd or out of place, the baking soda actually helps soften the split peas more thoroughly and quickly by changing the pH level of the cooking liquid. But no more than a pinch! Too much baking soda can lead to off flavors in the final product.

•    Soy sauce: Another ingredient you weren’t expecting! While one tablespoon isn’t enough to make your soup taste like soy sauce, it is just the right amount to amp up the umami factor, adding a savory depth that can be hard to achieve in vegetarian cooking.

•    Lemon juice: For brightness and that perfect little zing to heighten all the flavors in the soup.

What is the history of yellow split peas in Nordic cuisine? 

Dried pulses have been a staple of the Scandinavian region since at least the Bronze Age. In a cold and unforgiving climate, dried legumes provided an important source of nutrition during the long winter months. Historically speaking, dried whole yellow peas and split peas were very common, providing a base for legendary pea soups throughout the region.

Can I make this soup in advance? Yes! Cool the soup for an hour at room temperature and then transfer to a sealed container and store in the refrigerator for up to three days. It will thicken as it cools, so you may need to add a little additional water to loosen the soup when you reheat it.

Can I freeze this soup?

Absolutely. It freezes VERY well. Transfer the cooled soup to airtight, freezer-safe containers or bags. Freeze for up to two months.

Easy Vegetarian



2 tbsps. extra-virgin olive oil plus more for serving
1 large onion, diced small
2 carrots, peeled and diced small
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tsps. chopped fresh thyme or 1 tsp. dried
1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
1 tsp. smoked paprika plus more for serving
1 ½ cups yellow split peas picked over and rinsed
½ cup pearl barley
4 cups vegetable or low-sodium chicken broth
4 cups water
Pinch of baking soda
1 bay leaf
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. lemon juice or more to taste
2 tbsps. chopped fresh parsley


1.    Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and carrots and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, thyme, smoked paprika, and rosemary and cook for an additional minute.

2.    Add split peas, barley, broth, water, baking soda, bay leaf and 1 tsp. coarse salt to the pot. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Continue to cook until peas are very soft and the barley is pleasantly tender and chewy, about 35-45 minutes.

3.    Add soy sauce, lemon juice, and parsley and season the soup to taste with salt and pepper. Serve, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of smoked paprika.


The only way to know if the split peas and barley are done to your liking is to TASTE THE SOUP. Don’t just go by the time ranges set forth in the recipe. I have purchased bags of split peas that cook in just 25-30 minutes, and others that have taken as long as 50! While these extremes certainly aren’t the norm, it bears mentioning that the only way to know FOR SURE that your split peas are soft and tender and your barley is perfectly toothsome is to go ahead and give it a try. The same rule goes for adding/not adding salt, pepper, or additional lemon juice, by the way. Taste, taste, taste until it’s just the way you like it.

This article originally appeared in the September 2, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Kristi Bissell

Kristi Bissell is the founder of True North Kitchen, a Nordic food blog designed for the American home cook. She enjoys creating recipes that celebrate her Scandinavian heritage and that approach traditional Nordic ingredients in a modern, fresh and approachable way. Kristi is a native of Minneapolis and currently resides in Omaha, Neb. When she’s not cooking and baking in her cozy kitchen, Kristi teaches private and corporate yoga classes and leads Scandinavian cooking and baking workshops. For more information, visit her blog, www.true-north-kitchen.com.