Borscht (also known as borsch, bortsch, borstch, borsh, borshch) is one of my favorite dishes. It’s hearty, satisfying and full of vitamins. The sweet and tart taste of borscht pleasantly tickles your taste buds and makes you crave for more. It’s irresistible. Coupled with freshly baked garlic buns or French baguettes this dish is to die for.
In Ukraine borscht is often served as a two-course meal – a soup and a main course consisting of meat taken out of borscht with some side dish added. You can skip salad too, considering the amount of veggies you find in borscht.
How to make borscht the traditional Ukrainian way
Traditional Ukrainian borscht typically does not have a deep purple color, the color of beetroot soup or ‘svekolnik’ as Russians and Ukrainians call it. Instead, it has more of a reddish and dark orange color to it.
Borscht is usually associated with traditional Ukrainian cuisine, though other Slavic countries have long had this dish in their menus. Variations of borscht recipes are endless, there are no two that are the same, and every cook has own unique recipe.
Making borscht is quite time consuming, but definitely worth it. Hopefully this post will help make the cooking process a little easier and reveal a few tips that that will help make your dish a tad tastier.
Fresher and better quality ingredients will make for better borscht, it goes without saying. Make sure you have all your ingredients prepared before cooking as it will help the process go a lot faster and smoother.
If you want your borscht to have a brighter color with distinct beetroot taste, use beet varieties that are darker in color (e.g. Bull’s Blood or Cylindra). If just a hint of beets taste is what you are after, pick lighter beet varieties, such as Chioggia or Golden beet. With lighter varieties of beets your borscht will have less of a purple beet color and more of the color of tomatoes and/or tomato paste.
Different kinds of meat can be used for borscht. There is no strict rule here whatsoever. Some like to use pork ribs or pork butt, some use chicken or duck meat, while some use smoked meats in their borscht. The meat should be fresh and well rinsed before cooking, and free of sinew. Ukrainians love the meat to have some fat on it, but this is optional. My personal favorite is pork butt with fat trimmed off to bare minimum.
Borscht base is the broth. Good broth is essential for good borscht. Broth should be ‘strong’ as Ukrainians put it, meaning it should have full body, good mouth feel, and some thickness to it. To get that meat and bones should cook for at least 2 and up to 3 hours. I never have patience to go that far, stopping typically at about 1.5 hours. Broth should be tasty and flavorful. This is achieved by cooking it over low heat. Gentle simmer is what you want. Vigorous boiling will also cause broth become dull and cloudy, you want to avoid that. Beautiful coloration is achieved by adding a whole onion and a carrot. Aromatic qualities are achieved by adding spices of choice. I usually only add whole black peppercorns and bay leaves.
Finally, it’s recommended that before use the broth is filtered through cheesecloth.
Traditionally, few spices are added to borscht. Commonly used ones are bay leaf, black pepper, garlic and greens, such as dill, green onions, and parsley. Some cooks choose to add other spices, but do so cautiously, so as not to overpower the natural flavors of borscht.
The order in which ingredients are added to borscht are also important. So, here is how to make borscht in 5 easy steps following the traditional sequence:
- Prepare the broth
- Add diced potatoes and meat. If using beans, add pre-cooked beans right after adding potatoes and meat
- Add stewed carrots, onions, beets and tomato paste
- Add garlic and shredded cabbage 5 minutes before borscht is ready
- Add greens at the very end, right before borscht is ready (alternatively, sprinkle greens just before serving)
Salt and acidic ingredients are typically added towards the end of cooking. If added too early in the process, they will prolong the cooking of potatoes and the cabbage, making them overly soft and mushy. Adding spices and garlic at the end ensures that they don’t release too much of their flavor into borscht and don’t overpower it.
Borscht should have a full body and certain thickness to it, be slightly sweet and tart, and have a pronounced taste of vegetables. Starchy ingredients such as potatoes and good ‘strong’ broth add to the body of borscht. Sweetness is achieved by adding beets and sugar, which is often added at the time of stewing beets to help retain their deep color.
Moderation is key here, you don’t want your borscht overly sweet. Sometimes sweet bell peppers are added to borscht, in which case less sugar is used. Tartness is achieved by adding vinegar which is added during stewing of beets, tomatoes and/or tomato paste. Balance of sweet and tart is crucial, one should not overpower the other.
Greens help bring out the flavor. Usually fresh dill, parsley, scallions and celery are used.
Ideally the color of borscht should be deep and saturated. The color may vary from light red to dark red depending on the quantity of beets and how long they were cooked. The longer they cook, the more color they will give off to borscht. Sometimes certain ingredients are added to borscht specifically to achieve desired color. Those can be beet juice, tomato juice, cranberry or black currant juice.
Good borscht, they say, should be thick. Some say that it should be thick to the point where if you stick a spoon in it, it should not fall. Thickness in borscht is achieved by ‘strong’, saturated broth and proper amount of certain ingredients, such as cabbage. It’s not uncommon for flour to be added to thicken borscht. Here is the picture of the thick borscht that I am talking about. I added a little bit of flour to thicken it, and used a fairly ‘strong’ broth. My family prefers a less thick version so I don’t make it like that often, but it’s soooooo good.
All that said, borscht should not be mushy and puree-like. All ingredients should maintain their shape and cabbage should have a slight crunch.
Commonly borscht is served hot. Keep in mind that borscht has good keeping qualities and will keep well in a fridge for several days, and even longer if the meat is removed. A common saying in Ukraine is ‘good borscht is yesterday’s borscht’, meaning that borscht only benefits from sitting in a fridge for a day or two which helps it develop better flavors. Traditional Ukrainian borscht is often served with plain or garlic buns, and sour cream.
- 2 medium beets, coarsely grated (300 g)
- 3 cups cabbage, shredded (200 g)
- 2 medium potatoes, diced (400 g)
- 1 medium carrot, coarsely grated (100 g)
- ⅓ cup parsley root, coarsely grated (40 g) (optional)
- 1 small onion, diced or finely sliced (75 g)
- 2 Tbsp. tomato paste (60 g)
- 1½ Tbsp. sugar (20 g)
- 1 Tbsp. vinegar (12 g)
- 4 Tbsp. vegetable or olive oil (40 g)
- 2 garlic cloves (10 g), finely chopped
- salt to taste
- freshly ground pepper to taste
- fresh dill, parsley and green onions, finely chopped
- sour cream (optional)
- For the broth:
- 10 cups water (2500 g)
- 2 lbs pork butt, fat trimmed (900 g)
- 3 bay leaves
- 10-15 whole peppercorns
- 1 whole carrot, peeled, cut in half
- 1 whole medium onion, cut in half
- Note: this amount of broth will produce a fairly thick borcht. If you want to make your borscht less thick, as pictured above, increase the amount of broth by 1.5 times. Sugar, vinegar and tomato paste should be increased by the same ratio.
- Place meat, water, carrot, onion, peppercorns and bay leaves in a large pot and bring to boil. Turn the heat down to very low and simmer for about 1.5 to 2 hours. Take the meat out, let cool and cut into pieces or shred. Filter the broth through cheesecloth and set aside. Broth can be made in advance and refrigerated overnight
- Start bringing the broth back to boil over medium heat
- Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet. Place beets in the skillet and cook over medium high heat for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add two more tablespoons of oil, followed by onions, carrots, and parsley root. Continue cooking for 10 minutes. Add tomato paste, vinegar, sugar and 1 cup of hot broth. Turn the heat to medium and continue cooking for 10 minutes, stirring frequently
- Add the meat and diced potatoes to the boiling broth and cook for 15 minutes
- Add the beets, carrots and onions and wait until borscht comes back to boil
- Add the shredded cabbage with chopped garlic and cook for 5 minutes
- Add salt and pepper to taste just before the borscht is done, followed by the finely chopped greens (fresh dill, parsley and green onions). Alternatively, you may sprinkle fresh greens in the bowl just before serving.
- Turn off the heat, cover and let sit for 20 minutes
- Serve with sour cream (optional but highly recommended), greens and garlic buns
Hetman borscht is a variation of the traditional Ukrainian borscht that uses baby back pork ribs for meat and includes eggplant and fresh shelled beans. Not being a huge fan of fresh beans, I usually exclude them. I am making them optional in this recipe too, but feel free to add them, you may be pleasantly surprised.
Hetman was the position of the head of state in Ukraine, established at first by Bohdan Khmelnytsky during the Cossack Hetmanate in the mid 17th century, and subsequently abolished in the late 18th century. I am not sure if this recipe dates all the way back to mid 17th century, but it is quite popular in Ukraine and Russia nowadays, and definitely a must try. Eggplant’s soft and tender texture contrasts crunchiness of cabbage and gives this borscht a unique chew.
As with any borscht, homemade broth is the best way to go. Though it takes some time to prepare, the process is very simple. Put ribs, carrots, onions, bay leaves and peppercorns in a pot of water and simmer for about 2 hours. That’s it. Broth can be made a day or two ahead.
Make sure to peel and prepare all your veggies before starting to cook borscht. If you do that, the whole cooking process will be a breeze. Really, very simple and fairly quick. I often hear that making borscht takes a looooong time and is oh-so-complicated. Yes, it can be. Making broth does take time, but it can be made ahead. Peeling, dicing and shredding veggies takes time, but ask family members to help you out, I always do. Once all that prep work is done, making a delicious borscht only takes about an hour. What’s left is simply following the steps. I tried to be as detailed as possible, so hopefully it will make it a lot easier for you to end up with a pot of delicious borscht. By the way, if you are planning to entertain guests and want to serve borscht, you can make it a day ahead too. As Ukrainians say – a good borscht is yesterday’s borscht. Keeping it in the fridge for a day helps it develop better flavors.
Sautee your vegetables, starting with the carrots and followed by the onions.
Add the bell pepper and, later, the beets.
After a little bit, add the tomato paste and cook a little longer. Your sauteed veggies are now ready for borscht. Eggplant can be pre-cooked in a separate skillet, or you can add it raw to your borscht. It will cook there. I do prefer to brown my eggplant before adding to borscht for more flavor. Sauteing veggies is done for that exact reason too – to get the most of the flavors out of them. That and to soften them as they will not be boiling in the pot for too long.
Shredding rib meat is optional, many do so, I usually don’t. I put whole ribs in borscht. I find it more enjoyable to each bigger chunks of meat, off the bone. You decide for yourself. The rest is super simple, just follow the steps below and enjoy. Oh, and if you want the ultimate borscht feast, make some garlic buns, or pampushki as they call them in Ukraine. They go so well with borscht.
- For broth:
- 2 lbs / 900 g baby back pork ribs, fat trimmed off
- 9 cups water
- 1 small onion
- 2 small carrots
- 3 bay leaves
- 6-10 whole peppercorns
- For borscht:
- 8 cups broth
- 2 small onions, diced
- 2 small carrots, coarsely grated or julienned
- 1 medium beet, coarsely grated or julienned
- 8 oz / 250 g cabbage, coarsley shredded
- 2 medium potatoes, diced into 1 inch cubes
- ½ large red bell pepper, diced
- 1 small eggplant, diced into 1 inch cubes
- 8 oz / 250 g fresh shelled beans (optional)
- 1 large tomato, diced
- 3.5 oz / 100 g tomato paste
- 1 tsp salt (plus more to taste)
- freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 2 garlic cloves, pressed
- 2 Tbsp vegetable to olive oil
- Fresh parsley, dill, chopped
- Sour cream (to taste)
- To prepare broth, cut ribs and place in a large pot with the rest of the ingredients (water, onion, carrots, bay leaves and peppercorns). Bring to boil, reduce heat to very low, cover leaving a small opening and simmer for 1.5 - 2 hours
- Remove from heat and set aside to cool down. You should end up with about 8 cups of broth
- Once the broth cooled down, remove ribs and set aside. Filter broth through cheesecloth and set aside
- Prepare all your vegetables ahead of time. This will greatly simplify cooking process
- Preheat a large skillet with 2 Tbsp vegetable or olive oil
- Saute carrots over medium-high heat for about 4 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent burning
- Add onions and saute for another 3 minutes constantly stirring
- Add bell pepper and tomatoes and continue sauteing for 5 minutes over medium heat
- Add beets, drop heat to low and cook for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally
- Add tomato paste and stir the vegetables really well. Continue cooking for 5 minutes over low heat. Remove from heat and set aside
- Saute eggplant cubes in a separate skillet for about 3-4 minutes until sides are nicely browned
- Bring broth to boil
- Add ¼ of the vegetables and let cook over medium heat for 5 minutes
- Add potatoes and continue cooking for another 5 minutes
- Add eggplant and continue cooking for another 5 minutes
- Add 1 tsp salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Add fresh beans (optional), the rest of the sauteed vegetables, rib meat (on the bone or shredded) and continue cooking for 5 minutes
- Add shredded cabbage and continue cooking for 5 more minutes
- Taste for salt, add more if needed
- Add pressed garlic, some of the chopped greens and stir
- Remove from heat, cover with a lid, and let sit for 15-20 minutes