Ukrainian Borscht: An Everyday Masterpiece

I was fortunate enough to have my friend, Olga Dovgopola, help me make Borscht soup!  I have never made Borscht before, but Olga’s recipe is fantastic and there is nothing like a great Ukrainian cook to help one learn how to make authentic borscht. 

For many that know Olga, they often think of her as this fabulously talented artist.  Without a doubt her artistic talent (in many mediums!) is irrefutable and indeed, humbling!  But what many don’t know about her is that she is also an amazing cook.  It’s astonishing that her husband, Johnny, can keep his “girlish figure”!  

With Olga’s incredible generosity of time and talent, I am pleased to be able to share this experience in cooking an everyday Ukrainian masterpiece. I look forward to having Olga frequent my kitchen in the future where we can experiment with further Ukrainian delights!  Enjoy, my friends! 

Olga and Ethan making borscht

What Is Borscht?

Most people think of borscht as a Russian sour soup made from beets.  But borscht is actually of Ukrainian origin. Borscht has a rich heritage and has migrated throughout Baltic and northern Slavic countries. While the most popular version is the beetroot-centered version, crimson in color, there are also versions of a White Borscht, also known as a Sour Rye Soup (with a base of rye flour) and a green borscht featuring sorrel leaves.   A common feature is that borscht can be served hot or cold.

History

It is believed that the precursor to the entire family of sour soups is a foraged soup prepared by the Slavic tribesmen that featured a pickled hogweed, which thrives in damp, wild environs of the Baltic states.

While the word Borscht is Yiddish in origin, it derives from the ancient Slavic word for the hogweed plant –  bursci. This plant, a staple of the proto-Slavic diet, was preserved by pickling it, then throwing it into cauldrons of boiling water with animal bones and random root vegetables or meats -essentially whatever was on-hand.  This formed the basis of the foraged soup. 

Knowing how borscht came about makes it resonate with my inner historian. I truly enjoy the process of cooking something with ancient significance that’s been an elemental part of the human diet for hundreds of years.  Even with the recipe in an evolved state, I am delighted to be able to draw on this tangible link with the past. And who better to learn this from than Olga, who has had Borscht be part of her upbringing in the Ukraine?! Let’s get to learning! 

No Right or Wrong Way: 

I am going to lay out how Olga and I made the borscht, however, it’s not the only way to do it!  One thing I have learned, looking at the history and multiple variations of borscht, is that it is very much a common dish that typifies everyday cooking in Eastern Europe.  People use what they have available.  It is often made many different ways, even within the same household!  Don’t be afraid to experiment and change up the quantities. 

The Approach:

This version or borscht uses pork – but almost any meat or fowl can be used.  It’s a versatile soup.  We will be preparing the vegetables and meat prior to starting to cook anything.  There is a fair amount of cutting involved with the prep work, so budget a little time for that.  We will be preparing the soup in a stock pot and browning the pork in a skillet along with the beets, carrots and onions.  The pork will then be boiled in a small pot prior to adding to the soup.    

ingredients

Ingredients: 

Quantities below are largely determined based on taste and what you prefer.  I will include the quantities we used, however bear in mind you can alter that however you want. 

One large red beet.  The ripeness of the beet has a lot to do with its coloration, according to Olga.  You don’t want them over-ripe as they tend to leech off less of their color.

Pork:  pretty much any meat can be used.  I would likely choose a white meat like turkey, chicken or pork.  In this case we used pork chops.

Carrots (3 full sizes carrots, or 6-10 large baby carrots)

Onions (two medium or one large onion)

Potato (we were potato-heavy on this version so we used 4 potatoes)

Cabbage (1/2 head of cabbage)

Diced tomato (one can)

Navy beans/Great Northern beans (one can)

Lemon (juice and pulp from ½)

Parsley (used primarily as a garnish – amount varies by taste)

Garlic – 2 cloves

Bay leaf (3 bay leaves)

Chicken or Vegetable stock (32 ounces)

Tomato paste (small can or equivalent of tomato sauce)

Salt

Pepper

Sour cream (used as a final garnish – done to taste.)

Butter (1 tablespoon – for sauteeing onions etc)

The Prep Work:

raw pork

We started by trimming the pork from the bones, cutting off excess fat and cutting into bite sized chunks.  Try to get as much of the fat as possible. Eventually we will be boiling the meat, so excess fat creates a fair bit of skimming work to remove the boiled fat from the top of the boiling water. Reserve pork to the side on a plate.  We will start with browning that in a bit. 

Next, prepare the main vegetables. 

Onion:  we used two medium onions. I started with slicing them in half, and then each half in 2mm slices, then from there I went to chopping them finely.

Carrots:  we used a 6-10 large baby carrots.   I would also urge using regular carrots here since the skins contain so many nutrients.  I sliced the carrots in half lengthwise then sliced them crosswise in 2mm slices.

carrots

Cabbage:  We used half of a head of cabbage.  This is one of those things were I always urge adding more.  Cabbage is great and I love it for added body.  We sliced the cabbage relatively thinly.  Again, this is something that can be done to taste.  If, after experimenting, you find you like larger pieces of cabbage, go for it.  Olga sliced them thinly …so just saying.  I’ll follow the Ukrainian on this one.

cabbage sliced

The beet is peeled and sliced into 2mm square “sticks”.  This takes a little concentration so give yourself some time here. A sharp knife here is very helpful. 

beet

Potato: The 4 potatoes were cubed for soup as you might expect.  1 – 2cm cubes is appropriate.  We did not peel the potatoes – again I prefer the potatoes with skins on them for the nutrients. 

potato

Parsley: Chop the parsley roughly.  It is used primarily as a sprinkled garnish for presentation and that quick blast of green freshness, but don’t be afraid to use some in the soup itself.

parsley

Garlic: 2 cloves, minced.  Used in he soup.  Although Olga likes to thinly slice the garlic and nibble on it with the soup!  It’s actually a great little additive! 

Instructions:

We started by getting water boiling in a small pot to boil the pork.  At this point make a decision about how much pork flavor you want infusing the borscht.  If you want a lot, then I would give the meat a fast, high-heat searing in a skillet before boiling. 

boiling pork
boiling pork

Once you get the meat boiling, fat will likely foam at the top.  Spoon off as much as possible. I would cook the pork until just about done.  It can finish in the stock pot. Once finished reserve the meat to the side.

*Optional* You can transfer the cooking water to the stock pot since it is now infused with great pork flavor. If you would prefer not to use the cooking water, discard and simply add more fresh water to the stock pot.

Fill the stock pot about 1/3 full with water, add the chicken or vegetable stock and start heat on high to get it to a boil. 

As stock pot reaches a near-boil, add the potatoes and bay leaves. 

Onions and carrots

In a sauté pan on medium heat, start cooking onions and carrots.  Cook until the onions are almost translucent then add the can of diced tomatoes, cooking until the combined ingredients are well mixed.  Transfer to the stock pot. 

died tomatos and veggies
Onions and carrots with diced tomatoes added

Reduce stock pot heat to a simmer.

Add the beans to the stock pot at this point.  Since they are already cooked, it is just a matter of having sufficient time to warm up.

borscht stock

Add the meat to the stock pot.

Add the cabbage to the stock pot.  At the same time, add a small can of tomato paste or tomato sauce.

beets

In a sauté pan, on medium heat, put the beets in to soften and cook.  Squeeze the lemon juice evenly throughout the pan as the beets cook.

olga with lemon and beets

Use a fork or spoon to add the lemon pulp to the pan as well. 

beets with lemon 1

I would sprinkle in the minced garlic here to give it a chance to brown a bit in the pan before transferring to the stock pot. Cook the beets until softened and ready for the soup. Time will vary by the size of your prep cut.  This is an important step because cooking time here means less cooking time in the stock pot.  That can result in loss of color and blanching of the beet.  Transfer to the stock pot when ready. 

beets and stock
Beets cooking on the left, stock pot with all ingredients minus the beets on the right.

Season the soup to taste with salt and pepper. 

Cook in the stock pot until all ingredients have had ample time to simmer and the flavors have mingled and become well-combined.  Taste as you go and stop cooking when you are happy with it! 

Ethan with borscht

Plating and Presentation:

ukrainian borscht

Ladle the soup into a bowl, serve with a generous dollup of sour cream. The sour cream adds a smooth richness to the soup. Garnish with parsley or dill. Serve!

A Note on Cooking Time:  

Total cooking time can vary quite a bit.  Starting the potatoes early and pre-boiling the pork and sautéing some of the veggies cuts way down on the necessary time.  But ultimately it comes down to taste and how tactile you want the vegetables. You can also alter that order of how you introduce the ingredients to the stock pot to more suit your taste. Experiment!

Pro Tips: 

  1. Cut the beets to match the relative length of your soup spoon.  It’s easier to not have them hanging off your soup spoon every which way. 
  2. Olga says that borscht is always better the next day.  I tried it the next day and I must admit it was fantastic!  It’s even great served cold! 
  3. Dill weed also makes a great garnish for this recipe.
  4. An alternative to the pork is a shredded meat or a sausage!

Nutrition information:

If you make vegetarian borscht, it contains about 73 calories per cup. 

If you make borscht with meat it will vary depending on the meat used.  You can safely estimate around 140 calories per cup on the high end with beef, and about 100-110 calories on the low end with turkey.  Pork and chicken fall somewhere between. 

Olga and Ethan
Bon Appetit!!

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