Arts & Culture

Borscht: A Cozy Winter Meal

by Liliana Palmer

liz west on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

Borscht is an unfairly maligned winter soup with a unique flavor that is unrivaled in it’s heartiness. Despite the stereotype, Borscht is actually Ukrainian, not Russian, although there are many regional varieties from all parts of Eastern Europe. Generally, Russia actually has more of a tradition of cabbage soups. And it’s far from bland desperation fare – it’s about as heavy and rich as a vegetable soup can be.

Borscht tastes more tart and sour than earthy, but the vinegar, tomato, onion, beets, and potatoes combine to create a very rich flavor that you will adore if you like sour food. It is perfect to dip bread in, and makes a very cozy warm meal. 

This soup has been around for as long as anyone can remember and has been perfected over centuries, with as many recipes as there are grains of sand on a beach, each militantly defended by its creator. The only constant is that you NEED fresh dill weed. This is how I like to make it.

The process of making borscht is a little involved and it will take up all of your stovetop and pots. Bear in mind that you’ll be cooking with two large pots at a time. The results are worth it though and you’ll have plenty left over. This should take about an hour to an hour and a half with 45 minutes of cooking time.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups potatoes, very thinly sliced (~4-5 small potatoes)
  • 1 can of sliced beats (For some reason, I’m told my recipe tastes better with canned beets rather than fresh. No idea why, but slicing beets is a nightmare so I don’t mind)
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 cup either chicken or vegetable broth for vegan borscht (Beef broth is in a lot of recipes, but personally I found it makes the soup a bit too gamey and overpowers the flavors)
  • 2 tablespoons butter or 2½ tablespoons robust vegetable oil for vegan borscht
  • 1 chopped onion (pick your onion size based on personal onion preference)
  • 1½ teaspoons salt
  • 1 chopped celery stalk
  • 1 chopped large carrot
  • 3-4 cups shredded cabbage (⅓ of a large cabbage)
  • Couple pinches fresh ground black pepper
  • 1 whole sprig of fresh dill, minced (or torn into bits). Some recipes say use just a teaspoon. Who are they kidding? This is the good stuff! Throw it in! [note: fresh dill tastes a lot better than dried dill, and has no metallic aftertaste, just a pleasant tang. Trust me.]
  • 2-3 tablespoons cider vinegar (1 tablespoon is almost too weak to taste, 2 brings it out a bit more. 3 might be too much depending on your taste, it’s a good idea to taste as you go and add more if it’s needed)
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar (mellows the vinegar, and the brown sugar taste compliments the soup)
  • ½ cup tomato paste (if you have small tubes, this is about one of those)

Garnishes & Sides

  • Sour cream or yogurt (sour cream is traditionally added to the top of each serving. I can’t say from experience, but if you have vegan substitutes they should work fine, just go for something slightly sour)
  • More dill sprigs
  • Chives
  • Black bread / pumpernickel / rye
  • Kosher pickles
  • Hard boiled egg halves
  • Chopped radishes
  1. Get out your equipment. You’ll need a deep saucepan or a normal pot, and a large dutch oven / soup pot. The latter will eventually hold everything, so make sure it’s big enough. You’ll also need pot covers and two free spots on the stovetop.
  1. Prepare the ingredients. Chop the vegetables, keeping in mind which pot they’ll go in. The ingredient list is split up to help.
  1. Start by loading the saucepan / pot with the potatoes, beets, water, and stock. It will definitely be close to full, so keep an eye on proportions if you need to add a smaller amount to make it all fit. Cover the pot and cook on medium heat until the beets are tender, which will be 20-30 minutes. Be careful with the beets, and pour off the can juice slowly. Beet juice stains things pink so easily you can use it to dye clothes and color food and drinks. A lot of red foods actually contain beets for this reason!
  1. Melt butter or heat vegetable oil in the dutch oven / big soup pot on medium heat, and add the chopped onion and salt. This will be a slower cook so it should be done after 8-10 minutes. Stir slowly.
  1. After the onions are translucent, add the celery, carrots, and cabbage to the dutch oven. Now pour off two cups of the liquid the potatoes and beets are cooking in from the saucepan / pot to the dutch oven, over the vegetables you just added. Once all the vegetables and the beet water are together, cover and cook it on medium heat for another 8-10 minutes until tender. It’s going to start smelling very good about now.
  1. If you timed it right, both the beets/potatoes in the pot and the rest of the vegetables in the dutch oven will finish cooking around the same time. When that happens, pour all the beets and potatoes (and liquid) from the pot into the dutch oven and stir it together. 
  1. Now add the rest of the ingredients (besides garnishes), that being the tomato paste, pepper, dill, vinegar, and brown sugar, and simmer the pot for at least 15 minutes covered. Before you get it cooking for the final stretch though, make sure to add these last ingredients slowly and taste after stirring them in to get the soup tasting right. I recommend adding vinegar just one tablespoon at a time. Remember that you can always add but not always take away, if you do overdo the vinegar you might be able to salvage it by balancing it out with more tomato paste, but don’t get caught in a loop that way. If the mixture is too thin, adding more tomato paste and removing the cover should help.
  2. About halfway through this last 15 minutes of cooking is a good time to toast some bread, buttered if you like. You’re definitely going to want some to have with the soup. If you’re extremely organized, you might be able to get away with hard-boiling eggs (11 minutes) at the same time as well, although if you want to go that route you might want to go easier on yourself and make them before. 
  3. Serve the borscht hot with bread, and optionally with a generous dollop of sour cream topped with chives and dill in each bowl. Sliced eggs, radishes, and kosher pickles are traditional sides that go really well with the soup and elevate the whole meal to more of a feast. If you’re serving a crowd, you can also serve tzatski, another regional soup. The two soups are good compliments to each other as they are both great for dipping bread and tzatski is has a fresh, nutty flavor that contrasts borscht’s sour and earthy taste. Thankfully tzatziki is served cold so you can make it ahead and refrigerate it if you chose to go that route.

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