I don’t know a lot right now, but I know I’m making borscht. The weather is wishy-washy, and I can’t decide if I want to put a sweater on or take one off. I’m torn between soaking up the last sunny days of the year and totally giving myself over to spooky movie marathon season. My Spotify “recommended for you” playlists have never been more chaotic. Somehow the only thing that makes sense is a soup I can adjust to fit my mood—one I can make hot or cold, meaty or light, dairy-laden or broth-based, depending on the day. If you’re feeling similarly unmoored at the moment, I might suggest making borscht for dinner.
Borscht is a bright magenta, beet-based soup (well, not always—we’ll get to that) with origins in Poland and Ukraine, but it is a staple across all of Eastern Europe, with variations to the recipe and name found from region to region. While the word may call to mind overly sweet, shelf-stable jars, borscht can be earthy, rich, and just sour enough, with plenty of room for adjustment based on personal taste. With a little time set aside for stovetop simmering and a kitchen towel you’re willing to sacrifice to the gods of natural purple dye, you’re well on your way to building a flavorful pot of your own.
Borscht can be hot or cold, meaty or light, dairy-laden or broth-based, depending on your mood.
According to Bonnie Frumkin Morales, chef and owner of Kachka in Portland, Oregon, the biggest benefit of making borscht at home is that “it’s very malleable and riffable. Everyone has their own style, and it’s a great way to use up whatever you have on hand.” To her, the prototypical Russian version is “hot, rich, and meaty,” made with a medley of hearty vegetables and braising meat, with a savory broth as the base. Morales swears by adding not just the beets themselves—“a common misconception is that it’s all about the root,” she says—but some of their stems as well, for added flavor and texture. If she’s going vegetarian, she adds dried mushrooms to the broth, to take advantage of their umami-boosting powers. “That’s what I do when I’m cooking at home,” she says.
At Veselka, an iconic 24-hour Ukranian restaurant in New York City and the site of my very first bowl of borscht, executive chef Dima Martseniuk estimates that the kitchen produces 5000 gallons of borscht per year. The restaurant’s classic recipe was developed by “Queen of Borscht” Malgorzata Sibilski, who retired at the end of 2018 after 30 years behind the counter. Sibilski’s borscht is on the menu all year long, but Veselka offers a few rotating seasonal varieties as well, like a hot vegetarian version in the spring and fall, and a creamy cold version in the summer (plus the special “Christmas borscht” around the holidays, which features mushroom dumplings floating in bright red broth). Martseniuk says the key to good borscht is acidity: “Either lemon juice or white vinegar is important to help keep the color.” Without it, your soup can turn slightly muddy and brown, a far cry from the brilliant characteristic hue you’re going for.
Even without a 5000 gallon-a-year borscht habit, home cooks can get the hang of making the dish rather easily. Says Martseniuk, “Making borscht isn’t quick, but it’s easy.” Some recipes call for a slow building of flavor in a large pot over the course of a few hours, with no fancy techniques involved but certainly a bit of patience. Some suggest that each part be made separately—the stock and meat, if you’re using it, plus the cooked beets and other vegetables—and combined at the last minute; this method leaves you the option of cooling everything down and storing it in the fridge, to be doled out later bit by bit. “After you have all of the pieces,” says Morales, “you can make yourself bowls of borscht all week.”
In the summer, in lieu of hot, brothy bases, borscht is often made with a thick dairy as the foundation, like buttermilk, yogurt, or kefir. These creamy versions are said to have originated in Belarus or Lithuania, but now feature across Eastern Europe and are a favorite way to adapt the same flavor profile to work in the warmer months. If you’re making cold, dairy-based borscht at home, Martseniuk suggests springing for the highest quality dairy you can find, since its flavor will be central to the final dish. At Veselka, the buttermilk they source from a trusted farm partner makes all the difference: “It’s so fresh, it tastes like what I remember from childhood,” he says.
Borscht’s flexibility doesn’t end with temperature, meat, or dairy additions; even what one might assume as the central tenet of the dish—that it’s made from beets—is open to interpretation. Sorrel-based green borscht is tangy and sour, and often loaded with potatoes for heft. Polish white borscht, made with fermented flour as a thickener, is typically served with long links of sausage and boiled eggs. Even Chinese cuisine has a borscht-adjacent dish, thanks to the country’s border with Russia; called luó sòng tāng or "Russian soup," it’s made from red cabbage and tomatoes.
No matter how you make your borscht, the most important thing is how you finish it.
No matter how you make your borscht, Morales says, “the most important thing is how you finish it.” Her preferred final touch is a bit of very spicy Russian mustard stirred in, which she says acts “like wasabi mixed into soy sauce.” A spoonful of sour cream is also a classic garnish, which “tempers the heat, and makes the soup richer.” Dima agrees: “The number one borscht topping is sour cream.” At home, he likes to top his bowls with parsley, grated garlic, and then a scoop of the tangy dairy—plus, if he has some on hand, a few drops of raw-pressed sunflower oil. For cold borscht, where the dairy is already present in the soup itself, diced cucumber, chopped pickled beets, hard boiled eggs, and herbs are these chefs’ garnishes of choice.
Like any beloved home-cooked dish, borscht can inspire strong feelings about the “right” way to make it. “My mom made the short ribs version growing up,” says Morales, “but every mother has their own version. People get very territorial about what has to go in there.” But variation is built right into the soup’s origins as a use-what-you-have dish, and according to Morales, almost anything goes. “Like everything, borscht is a continuum,” she says. “Food isn’t based on what some rulebooks say.”Tom BirchardNatalie DanfordAdina Steiman
Originally Appeared on Epicurious