Some posts take a very long time to “cook”. This is one of them! Most people have heard the word Borscht, yet very few people are familiar with traditional Russian Borscht itself. Chances are, unless someone has cooked it for you – you imagine the Campbell’s Soup canned variety. I wanted to make sure I included plenty of information you may need for cooking it. Borscht is truly a labor of love – from cleaning and cutting multiple vegetables to making the broth from scratch, it is hardly a dish I would label “quick and easy”. But it is certainly the one I label “worth it”. Savory broth, tender meat, lots of vegetables, and beautiful presentation.
What’s in the name?
First off, I am a little confused with the “t” at the end. There isn’t one in the Russian word for this hearty, red stew. Still, it must make sense for the pronounciation – it is one of many words with so many “s”, “c”, and “h” right next to each other in any order.
As I started wondering about the “t”, I decided to look up the etimology of the name. Even though Russian is my first language, the name did not make any sense to me either. Turns out, there aren’t any sources that explain how the word borscht came to be or who first used it. One version explains the name as an homage to the old Slavik word for “beet” – makes sense. I won’t even try to transcribe that word to English because the abovementioned old Slavik language is a dead language, and that particular word looks fairly unpronounceable.
What’s in the dish?
There is a Borscht joke that says that if you put a spoon in it, and it stands – you did it right. After tweaking the recipe until it tasted absolutely perfect to me, I found that unless you add cabbage – the spoon won’t stand. This probably should have been in the disclaimer, but in this recipe, I do the least Russian thing ever – omit the cabbage. The very best Borscht I ever made (and the one my husband ate two bowls of) didn’t have cabbage in it, and I am keeping it that way.
My mom’s recipe also has beans in it, but I personally like to leave them off. As I am writing this, I am so glad neither my mom nor my grandma can read English. Leaving the cabbage off would have been enough of an offense.
Also, Borsht is traditionally made in large quantities and an unofficial truth is that it’s better the next day. It just is. There is even an old joke about it:
“A hungry man knocks on a door and asks for food. The lady says “Would you like some of yesterday’s borscht?” “Of course!” – he says. “Then come back tomorrow!”
*If you are not going to keep reading for my jokes, stay for the recipes.
However, I prefer to cook pretty much everything in smaller quantities – I enjoy cooking dinner every day. However, if you are feeding a crowd or like to meal prep – Borscht is perfect for it.
And lastly: there are as many recipes for Borscht as there are people cooking it. The traditionalism of it isn’t in the ingredients or techniques used but in the continued cooking of it throughout different generations, different countries, and the sentiment attached. There is a green borscht, and a cold borscht, a pureed borscht and so on. If you scroll down on this page, you will see a lot of them. Many are unfamiliar to me. Now, I may be overly sentimental to it because I feel nostalgic thinking of it. But I know it holds a special place even in the hearts of people who never immigrated, like I did. There is just something comforting, familiar, and homelike about a big bowl of borscht. Something, that makes your heart beet faster (final Borscht joke.)
Traditional Russian Borscht
- 1 Lb beef of your choice (I used 1/2 sirloin steak)
- 1 Tb olive oil
- 1/4 C sweet onion thinly sliced
- 2 garlic cloves pressed, or finely minced
- 1 carrot peeled and sliced in thin disks
- 1/2-1 beefsteak tomato cut in 1/2 inch pieces
- 1/2 red bell pepper cut in 1/4 inch squares
- 1/4 tsp sugar optional
- 1 small beet peeled and cut in quarters, and then sliced
- 2 large potatoes cut in pieces similar to beet
- 2 tsp salt
- 1.5 tsp tomato paste
- sour cream
- green onion
- freshly pressed garlic, to stir in
- freshly ground black pepper
- Dry the meat with paper towels to remove excess moisture.
- Add the beef to a pot large enough to fit everything, along with 4 cups of water.
- Let the pot simmer over medium heat for 1 to 1.5 hours. Use this time to prep all of your vegetables – see instructions for “zazharka” below (zazharka is a combination of lightly roasted vegetables for the soup. Check on the meat frequently, and if you notice it boiling rapidly, reduce the heat. You may need to add more water, to make sure that the meat remains covered. *I ended up adding 3 cups water, one cup at a time.
- As the foam collects on top, skim it with a spoon. I recommend having two bowls next to you – one with clean water, and one empty. As you skim the foam, dump it in the empty bowl, and rinse the spoon in the clean water before using it again. Replace water as needed.
- Once the meat is cooked thoroughly (internal temperature should reach 160F) and the broth has been cleared throughout the cooking time, take out the meat and let it cool at room temperature, until it’s cool enough to handle.
- Strain the broth through a strainer, or a cheese cloth, and set aside. It should be very clear, if you thoroughly skimmed it while it cooked. Additional straining is to make sure no bone fragments will end up in final product. Set aside. *This is going to sound silly, but better cooks than I have strained the broth into a sink. PLEASE make sure you do use a container underneath the strainer. This is not pasta! You need all of the fatty broth.
- Once the meat has cooled, cut it in bite-size pieces and set aside.
- I prefer to cut everything slightly different, so that each item remains recognizable.
- I cleaned and re-used the same Dutch oven that I used to boil the meat. If you do this, keep in mind it’s going to be hot, and the burner will be fully heated. Monitor the heat so that the vegetables don’t get burned.
- Once the vegetables are prepared, preheat the olive oil over medium heat. *If you notice your Dutch oven or a skillet gets too hot at any moment, or browns vegetables too quickly, add more olive oil.
- Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes.
- Add pressed garlic, and carrot disks. Cook, stirring, for about two minutes.
- Add bell peppers, and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes. *Bell peppers can give off a slightly bitter smell. Red ones are the sweetest, and that’s why I picked them. If you sense the bitter smell, sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon of sugar over them.
- Add tomatoes, and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes.
- Take off heat. Beets and potatoes will be added later, along with the meat and seasoning.
Final Assembly (meat + broth + vegetables + seasoning)
- Grab a pot, or a Dutch oven big enough to fit everything. If you are using the same pot you boiled the meat in – make sure it’s clean. If you are using the same dish you cooked vegetables in, you can add things right away.
- Combine the following: meat, broth, vegetables (including beets and potatoes), salt, and tomato paste.
- Cover and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes.
- Uncover, and cook 5 more minutes.
- At this point, everything is cooked, but you need to check potatoes and beets. Using a slotted spoon, find a piece of potato and beet and check how soft it is with a knife. If it doesn’t seem soft enough, let it cook for a couple more minutes and check again.
- Divide Borscht between bowls, and add a pressed garlic clove into each bowl. It will make it very aromatic. Additional toppings include sour cream, green onion or dill, and freshly ground black pepper.
- Enjoy! 🙂