Discover the history of borscht soup and the secret to making the perfect pot.
By Yuliya Childers
If there is one item that puts Ukrainian cookery on the map of International Yum, that would be borscht. I would love to tell you that there are poems and songs written about it, borscht cook-offs and Borschtfests are held around the world, but, sadly, I can’t report any of this; apparently the rest of the world has not caught on about the magical properties of Ukrainian classic gastronomy. I can, however, tell you that there are numerous anecdotes and jokes about borsch making, borscht eating, and various family drama situations involving borscht somehow. Russian and Ukrainian literature has no shortage of borscht mentions. For example, there is a poetic episode in Bulgakov’s cult novel Master And Margarita, where a corrupt soviet bureaucrat gets arrested in his apartment right before he has a chance to dig into a bowl of “fire breathing borscht” with a knuckle bone nestling amidst its thickness.
Another famous borscht scene is featured in a soviet cult classic The Golden Calf by Ilf and Petrov. In this scene a certain husband is being informed by his wife that she is leaving him for another. He decides to go on hunger strike to get her back, and even temporarily succeeds in his endeavor, that is until he is busted sneaking borscht straight from the pot at night. He greedily consumes the borscht, stomping his foot with eagerness and anticipation, producing whistling and slurping noises in his nose, and smacking his lips; finally, he digs into the cold borscht with his bare hand and unearths a large chunk of meat, upon which his wife makes her presence known and he drops the meat back into the soup, producing a “small fountain of cabbage and carrot stars“. Hilarious!
Note that even though Bulgakov and Ilf & Petrov duo are all Russian writers, all of them have Ukrainian roots, as well as Russian classic Nicolai Gogol, whose works are peppered with borscht-isms. So you see, borscht found its way to fame by way of classic literature.
First and foremost, let me explain what borscht is. Borscht is the ancient slavic word for beetroot. Borscht, therefore, is a very hearty soup involving several varieties of vegetables (and meat for us non-vegetarians), that must have beetroot in it. Conversely, a soup without beetroot cannot be called borscht, no matter what they tell you. In Russian and Ukrainian cultures, borscht is the epitome of home cooking, the ultimate comfort food, the symbol of everything hearty, homey, superbly delicious and rich. Borscht has as many recipes as there are cooks, and whether meaty or vegetarian, it reigns supreme over any other soup known to the civilized world (according to me).
There are several basic methods of cooking borscht, of which my favorite is first cooking meat properly seasoned, yielding rich broth, and then dealing with vegetables separately and in a gentle and healthful way, connecting the meat and vegetables in the end. As I mentioned before, beetroot is a must. Second mandatory ingredient is green cabbage, and third — tomato paste or chopped tomatoes, which lend borscht their tartness and bright red tint. What you do beyond that, is your own choice. Major difference between Ukrainian and Russian borscht is the omission of potatoes and salt pork in the latter.
Below is a brief overview of some of the most important borscht components.
Meat choices. I’ve had borscht made of beef, lamb, duck, goose, and chicken. I never had borscht made of pork, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Meat must have some bones and fat in it, for best flavor. Fat could be skimmed off if you are afraid of it, after the broth is done.
Root Vegetables. Any root vegetable is going to work. Beets, as was mentioned before, are a must, and they have to be red beets. Beyond that, carrots, parsnips, turnips, celeriac, rutabagas, etc. will all work beautifully. All root vegetables must be cut in as uniform way as possible. Julienne is the best way to cut them (think thin french fries). Refer to pictures for thickness and length.
Other Vegetables. Green cabbage is a must. Best kind is the winter cabbage, which is harder, has stiffer leaves and is crunchy. For potatoes, I use Yukon Golds or Idaho, the yellow varieties. Baking potatoes such as Russet won’t work, and red potatoes will do quite well, but they tend to take longer to cook, so keep that in mind. I personally like bell peppers in my borscht. Their flavor is unmistakable and they are very fragrant. Green and red varieties are best. Celery stalks are great if you can’t get a hold of Chinese celery (leafy kind).
Tomatoes. Tomato paste is the most convenient and consistent in flavor, so that’s the easy way. Canned or fresh diced tomatoes with juice will work nicely, yielding somewhat thinner coloring and more subtle flavor, which may or may not need adjustment in the end.
Miscellaneous borscht facts.
- Second day borscht is better. Completely true. Flavors continue to develop after borscht is fully cooked, yielding better borsch on the day after cooking.
- Always make a large batch, you will thank me later. Borscht freezes beautifully, your friends, both healthy and ailing, will love the borscht giveaway, and you will want to eat it more than once, guaranteed.
- Potatoes in the borscht must be fully cooked. Cabbages, on the other hand, should be translucent, but still somewhat crunchy, not mushy.
- Classic borscht is best consumed with crusty sourdough bread slathered with butter, fresh garlic clove dipped in coarse salt and rubbed against the crust. Think of it as a Ukrainian version of garlic bread.
- If this version sounds a bit too savage to you, look up pampushki recipe. Pampushki are small yeasted soft rolls baked in a pan pressed snugly against each other and then separated and drizzled liberally with garlic and dill infused melted butter. First class delicacy if you ask me, but you wouldn’t want to mess with that on a regular weeknight, so save these for a special dinner.
- Final borscht should be quite thick, as Russians put it, to make the spoon stand straight up in it. Don’t be surprised if your borscht comes out thick as stew.
- Borscht must be served piping hot, with a dollop of sour cream served in each bowl.
- Slurping is encouraged, just as in wine tasting, to get the best of the flavor bouquet. Also helps to prevent lip and tongue burns from piping hot borscht.
- And no, for the hundredth time, store bought jar borscht has absolutely nothing to do with real thing. Don’t even try. Don’t even bother using it as a borscht starter. You will fail miserably and will swear off borscht forever, which will be a huge shame.
- 3 lbs soup bones, knuckle bones, neck bones, or breast bones
- 2-3 lbs of inexpensive roast, shoulder meat, etc, of substitute both bones and meat with a whole duck, chicken or goose, cut into manageable chunks. Skin and bones are a must on the poultry.
- 1 large onion, with skin or 5-6 dark green portions of leeks, fresh or frozen
- 1 small garlic head, with skin
- 1-2 carrots, cleaned, broken in half
- 2-3 stalks celery, cleaned, broken in half
- 10-15 peppercorns, crushed
- salt to taste
- 3-4 sprigs of fresh thyme (optional)
- 2 tbsp of olive oil, lard or tallow for sweating vegetables
- 2 large beet roots, leaves and stems removed, thoroughly cleaned
- 2 carrots, thoroughly cleaned
- [your root vegetable here, if desire, see suggestions above], thoroughly cleaned
- 2-3 stalks of celery, Chinese celery, or ½ celeriac root, cleaned
- 1 large onion, peeled
- 1 large bell pepper, cored and seeded
- 1 large green pepper, cored and seeded
- 2-3 large potatoes, peeled
- 1 small to medium cabbage head, cored
- 1 small can of tomato paste, or 1 14 oz can of diced tomatoes with juice, or 3-4 large Roma tomatoes, diced
- 4-5 cloves of garlic, minced
- salt, fresh ground pepper to taste, a dash of Paprika or cayenne pepper, up to you
- juice of 1 lemon
- 2 large handfuls of fresh chopped herbs or your choosing.
- Combine meat bones and chunks of uncooked meat in a large stock pot with at least 12 cups of cold water. Water should cover all the meat and vegetables completely.
- Bring water to a boil, reduce heat immediately to very low.
- Skim the surface of the water with a skimmer, removing all gray foam and impurities.
- Add the vegetables and seasoning all at once.
- Let the stock slow simmer, uncovered, for at least 2 hours, or until meat is very tender. For best results, I would remove the meat when it’s fully cooked, and continue simmering the bones for another 2-3 hours, to make the stock heartier and stronger.
- Remove meat from the soup bones. Discard the bones and vegetables. Cut cooked meat into bite size chunks. Reserve the meat until needed.
- Strain the stock. Mesh strainer is usually enough to produce good looking stock, but you can use cheese cloth, if you like it completely transparent. Reserve the stock until needed.
- Rinse the stock pot out completely of all impurities.
- Chop onions finely, celery stalks medium, and all the root vegetables in a shape of thin french fries. Cut bell peppers in half, and slice crosswise into strips. Cube potatoes. Cut cabbage head into quarters, remove cores and slice each quarter crosswise thinly.
- Return the stock pot on the stove, bring the heat up to medium low and add the vegetable cooking fat of your choice.
- Add chopped onions, carrots, celery, root vegetables at once and let them sweat in the pot for 4-5 minutes, stirring or shaking occasionally.
- Add chopped bell peppers if using at this point. Sweat for another minute or so.
- Add cubed potatoes
- Pour hot stock over vegetables. If there is not enough stock to cover the vegetables, add water.
- Bring soup to a boil and reduce heat to medium/low yet again. Stir once and cook for 15 minutes.
- Add shredded cabbage. Bring to a boil once again, and cook until cabbage is translucent, but still somewhat crunchy.
- Add the reserved meat chunks and stir the soup to distribute meat evenly. Naturally, vegetarians will omit this step.
- Add minced garlic, tomatoes or tomato paste and lemon juice. Stir very thoroughly, until tomato paste distributes evenly.
- Season to taste, adjusting salt if necessary. Sometimes onions and roots are just not sweet enough naturally, in which case, I add 1-2 tbsp of sugar to brighten the flavor. Final flavor profile should be lightly sweet and lightly tangy with mild garlic flavor.
- Finally, add almost all of the fresh herbs, reserving a few pinches for garnishing the bowls.
- Serve borscht piping hot, with a dollop of sour cream added to each bowl. Sprinkle with reserved fresh herbs.