Not long into our conversation about borscht and the recipe I’d been working on, Darra Goldstein warned me to brace for the inevitable.
Hot Ukrainian Borscht is Winter’s Most Restorative Soup
Published Dec. 5, 2022.
“You’ll print the recipe, and probably people will say, ‘Well, that’s not how my family makes it,’” she said with a good-natured chuckle on a video call from her home in the Berkshires.
The acclaimed author and scholar of Slavic cuisines was sharing her take on what constitutes a proper bowl of hot borscht in Ukraine, the soup’s ancestral home, and couldn’t help but note that it’s a divisive subject. She named beets, of course, for their earthy sweetness and vivid color, as well as green cabbage, carrots, onions, and potatoes—staple crops that grow abundantly in Ukrainian soil. Pork, the cuisine’s default protein, for building up a meaty backbone. Acidity from vinegar, lemon juice, tomatoes, or kvass, to invigorate the broth. Sour cream plopped onto each serving at the table, followed by feathery dill. Good bread alongside.
These markers are as classic as they are controversial because borscht is all about resourcefulness—a meal that’s cobbled together from whatever raw materials a cook has on hand. So it’s bound to vary, and each version becomes a cook’s tradition: similar to, but not the same as, someone else’s.
“It’s one thing that people can always agree to disagree on,” said Vitaliy Poylin. A Chicago-based Kyiv native who has spent decades honing his own formula, he described how the dish is so ubiquitous in Ukrainian life that home cooks don’t even bother debating who makes a superior version.
“It’s OK if yours is a little different, because I know mine is better,” he joked, emulating Ukrainians’ stubborn pride in their individual approaches.
Borscht Strikes a Deliberately Sour Note
There are probably a hundred versions of borscht made just within Ukrainian borders, Darra Goldstein, the esteemed author and food scholar, told me when we spoke about what defines the country’s national dish. Green soups teeming with nettles and spinach and sorrel or vivid magenta broths dyed, unmistakably, by beets. Borscht can be hot or cold; fortified with meat or simply full of seasonal, regional vegetables; as substantive as stew or as sheer and elegant as consommé.
What you do find in every pot is acidity, because Ukrainian borscht is part of a larger family of Slavic sour soups, including other styles of borscht from Poland and Russia, and cabbage‑based Russian shchi. Kvass, sauerkraut, or other fermented foods might serve as a broth base, or be added to cut through rich meat-based stocks. Cooks often work in tart apples, unripe stone fruits, or pickles—or just their brine—as well as vinegar, lemon juice, or tomatoes. Many bowls also get a spoonful of sour cream at the table.
“You absolutely have to have a souring agent or something acidic to brighten the flavor of borscht,” Goldstein said, noting how, in that region of the world, cooks developed a penchant for sourness and the fizzy, funky tang of fermented foods as a result of preserving the harvest—and that their palates and digestive preferences naturally followed.
“The preservation just made sense,” she said. “And it just so happened that the cuisine developed around that.”
And yet, Poylin stressed that there are unifying threads. Even the humblest pots nourish with all the trappings of a complete meal. There are hot and cold styles, which make borscht evergreen and adaptable to the seasons—restorative in winter, festive at holidays, refreshing on a hot day. Above all, borscht is so ingrained in the mealtime routine that neither native cooks nor the diaspora can imagine life without it.
“I think most Ukrainians, if you would ask them, do they bleed red? They would say they bleed borscht,” said Jason Birchard, owner and third-generation proprietor of Veselka, New York City’s iconic Ukrainian diner.
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Do the Two-Step
Even meat-fortified borscht is considered a vegetable soup, so I made stock with a modest 2 pounds of boneless pork butt. As it simmered for nearly 2 hours, the collagen-rich meat rendered the liquid full-bodied and mildly savory. I skimmed the fat and chopped the pork into pieces to add back to the pot before serving.
Meanwhile, there were vegetables to prep and cook. The goal is that nothing takes too long to soften and that the doneness of the hard roots and softer cabbage, potatoes, and onion sync up. Also, as striking as beets are, they shouldn’t overtake the soup; they should simply pull it all together.
Hence, Poylin said, many cooks take a shred, sauté, and simmer approach: Shred the beets, carrots, and cabbage; chop the onions and potatoes; and briefly sauté the beets and carrots so that the high heat softens them before they hit the broth. It worked well: Start to finish, the sautéed beets and carrots softened more quickly than they did when simmered from raw; plus, the oil and high heat intensified their flavors.
Science: Heat the Beet
Rather than simmering all the vegetables together from the start, many recipes call for sautéing the beets before adding them to the broth. Here’s why the extra step is worth it.
- Speedier Cooking Beets contain ferulic acid, a compound that strengthens pectin bonds and makes the vegetable notoriously hard—and slow to soften. (Carrots contain a small amount too.) The higher heat of sautéing unlocks those bonds more quickly than simmering in liquid does, helping the beets soften faster. (Shredding beets also speeds cooking by maximizing their surface area.)
- More Complex Flavor Oil draws out the vegetables’ fat-soluble compounds, enhancing their flavor.
A Bright Spot
The sauté step also allowed me to brown the tomato paste I’d added for that critical undercurrent of brightness, boosting its depth. (Fresh tomatoes weren’t worth using in winter; canned lacked intensity.) Then I deglazed the pan with reserved broth.
I tipped the beet mixture into the pot, where the cabbage and potatoes were nearly tender, and briefly simmered everything to meld the components. Into the ruddy broth I stirred the chopped pork, plenty of dill, and lemon juice for an even brighter burst of acidity. I let everything sit for a few hours—because if there’s one thing about borscht that’s undisputed, it’s that some serious flavor magic happens when the soup has time to rest.
“It really should sit overnight for the flavors to develop,” said Goldstein, noting that a fresh batch never tastes as full and balanced. “Even after three days, five days if it lasts that long, is when I like it best, because it just gets a really deep, deep flavor.” In fact, Goldstein said, she had recently stumbled on a batch in the back of her freezer from a year earlier. “I took it out, not knowing how it would be. And it was so good.”