Thursday, November 30, 2006

Borsh (or Borsch, or even Borscht if you need a few extra consonants)

Borsh is one of the dishes most misunderstood by Americans. On this side of the Atlantic, it is known as a flavorless pink liquid that comes in a jar. I am not sure how this diluted beet juice started being sold as borsh. Where is the beef stock, the potatoes, the cabbage, the carrots, the onions, the garlic, and the tomatoes? Where is the taste?

Now the spelling... The most reasonable way to transliterate "Борщ" is "Borsh." What are all those extra consonants doing in the English version is a mystery to me. Maybe they are trying to compensate for something.

My regular cooking is mostly Mediterranean. But the chilly fall air has been giving me craving for a pot of good Russian soup. When I told my Mom that I made Borsh, she was surprised. "With all your sophisticated cuisine you have a craving for Borsh?!" After I spent 2 days making my fabulous Borsh, I was shocked that someone would think it's not sophisticated. "Who are you calling unsophisticated? Just because you can do it with your eyes closed, doesn't mean it's not a complex dish. Bouillabaisse is a piece of cake compared to Borsh!" Ok, so maybe I was getting carried away there, but a good Borsh has layers after layers of flavor and it does take longer to cook than Bouillabaisse.

Making Borsh is not hard. It's not like testing fish or steak for doneness and catching a perfect split second when it's just right. The most important cooking skill you have to have is patience. Borsh is super slow food and you can't rush it. Before I give you a recipe, let me explain the basic principle of Russian hot soups. First you need to make a stock, chill it and degrease it. Since a big pot of stock takes a while to chill, you do this a day in advance. Can you use store bought beef stock? Sure you can. But if you want the real thing, you have to make it yourself. Besides if you use store bought stock, you won't get nice tender pieces of beef in your borsh.

When your stock is made and degreased, you return it back to the heat and start adding vegetables. Potatoes and carrots go in first since they cook the longest, cabbage goes in next. There is a little controversy over when to add the beets. Traditionally, whole beets go in first (before the potatoes and carrots), they are then removed, shredded and returned to the soup. A trick I learned from my Mom, whose Borsh is the best I've ever had, is to wrap beets tightly in foil and bake in the oven until tender. Then shred them and add to the soup towards the end.

The final and most important touch, without which no Russian soup is complete is the carrot-onion flavoring. This is Russian mirepoix that appears in almost all savory hot dishes -- diced onions and shredded carrots cooked slowly in fat. For most dishes a mix of Sunflower seed oil and butter is used to cook them, but for Borsh nothing beats bacon fat. You finish this mixture with a can of tomatoes, tomato paste, and a ton of garlic. Then stir it into your soup and phew -- you are done!

It's very important to season your Borsh very generously. This is not the time for a little timid salt shaker. You have a ton of liquid here, so you'll need a ton of salt (if you want it to taste good). If you are making borsh for the first time, pour yourself a little bowl and start adding salt a pinch at a time. Taste the soup after each pinch and don't stop until the soup tastes "salty." Now remember what it tasted like right before that last pinch that tipped it over the edge. That was "perfect seasoning." Now try it with the whole pot, but stop at the "perfect seasoning" stage instead of going all the way to "salty." You'll need to add spoonfuls rather than pinches since a pot is large, but switch from tablespoons to teaspoons when you get towards the end.

Borsh (with fewer letters and more flavor)

Serves 10

For Stock:
3 large marrow bones
1 Lb beef (chuck or sirloin tips)

For Soup:
3 medium beets, trimmed and well washed, but not peeled
3 medium red skinned potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch dice
2 medium carrots, peeled, cut into quarters lengthwise, then thinly sliced
1/4 head cabbage, finely shredded
1 bay leaf
1 tsp whole black peppercorns

For Flavoring:
3 bacon strips, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 large yellow onions, finely diced
2 Tbsp sunflower seed (or olive) oil
3 medium carrots, shredded
1 can of crushed tomatoes, drained
1 Tbsp tomato paste
5 garlic cloves, very finely minced

For Garnish:
Sour cream
Dill and/or parsley, finely minced

Stock (prepare a day in advance):
  1. Place beef and bones in a large stock pot and cover with 5 quarts cold water.
  2. Cover and bring to a boil. As soon as the water boils, uncover and turn down the heat so that the liquid is simmering gently.
  3. Simmer for 3 hours, periodically skimming the brown foamy scum from the surface with a large spoon during the first 20-30 minutes of simmering or until no more impurities rise to the top.
  4. Chill the stock overnight. The fat will rise to the top and solidify. Remove it before making the soup.
  5. Remove and discard the bones.
  6. Remove the beef, cut it into rough chunks (about 1/3 inch big) and return to the stock.
  1. Preheat the oven to 375F. Wrap each beet tightly in aluminum foil and place on a backing dish (don't place directly in the oven as they might leek). Place the dish with beets in the oven and roast until tender. This can take anywhere from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours depending on the size of your beets. After the first 1 1/2 hours, pierce your beets (right through the foil) with a knife. Beets will never feel as soft as potatoes, but when they are done, you shouldn't feel much resistance. If beets are not done, roast them longer. Then cool, rub the skin off with your hands (it should come right off), and shred on a box grater using large holes.
  2. Once the beets are out of the oven, set the stock over on the stove top and bring to a simmer. Season to taste with salt.
  3. Add potatoes and sliced carrots. Simmer until potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife, about 20 minutes.
  4. Add the cabbage, bay leaf, and peppercorns. Simmer until cabbage is tender but not mushy, about 20 minutes. While the vegetables are cooking, make the flavoring.
  1. Set a large skillet over medium heat. Add the bacon and fry until the fat is rendered and the bacon is starting to turn crispy, stirring occasionally.
  2. Add the onions and a generous pinch of salt, turn down the heat to medium-low and cook stirring occasionally until onions are tender and golden brown, about 15 minutes. If the onions are sticking, add more oil.
  3. Add the shredded carrots and 2 Tbsp oil and continue to cook stirring occasionally until the carrots are tender and starting to brown, 15-20 minutes.
  4. Add drained tomatoes and tomato paste and cook until the mixture thickens slightly, 5-10 minutes. Take off heat.
  5. Stir in the garlic. Taste and correct seasoning.
Finishing the soup:
  1. Add the shredded beets and their juices to the soup.
  2. Add the carrot-onion flavoring to the soup.
  3. If the soup turned out too thick, add a little water. Stir well and take off heat.
  4. Taste and add more salt if needed.
  1. Pour into bowls, add a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of dill/parsley.
  2. Serve with good crusty bread rubbed with garlic and toasted. To make the toasts, cut a garlic clove in half, dunk in salt and rub all over the bread's crust. Then toast in a hot skillet on both sides with a couple of teaspoons of melted butter until golden and crispy.
  3. Instruct your guests to mix the sour cream in thoroughly with the soup. It looks pretty as a little snow pile on top of a steaming soup, but is not meant to be eaten that way. The reason we don't add sour cream into the pot is that it will curdle when the soup is reheated.
  4. Warn your guests about whole black peppercorns. I find it to be a nice spicy surprise when I bite into one, but not everyone agrees with me.
As any soup or stew, Borsh reheats beautifully and keeps well in the fridge for up to 5 days.


Mrs. M. said...

Thanks for posting this, Helen! I've never made borsh myself and I probably won't get a clear, step by step recipe from my mom.

I've considered trying Anya von Bremzen's recipe, but her beef stock directions and endless list of ingredients always intimidates me.

Helen said...

Hi Yulinka,

Let me know if you try this borsh and if you have any suggestions for improving the recipe. I know it looks ridiculously long, but it's not because it's hard. It's just because I like writing super detailed recipes. Most of this process happens quietly on the stove while you are doing something else and doesn't require much attention.

Have fun :)


Anonymous said...

Ah. Thank you for the recipe. I have the good fortune to live a short walk from a Russian restaurant called Moscow on the Hill where I usually get my fix. But now that we're dipping into our chilly winters, this will be nice to make at home, too.

Anonymous said...

I’ll certainly try this over the winter.
Going to my parents for the weekend, and guess what my mom is gonna make? – That’s right, borsch!
I’ll also right down the recipe (and incidentally, nobody makes borsch better than my mom).

Dima, Chicago

Helen said...

Hi Dima,

Do ask your Mom for a recipe. I'd be curious to see the differences. When you learn to cook from your Mom, you think that this is the "right" way to do everything, but there are all kinds of interesting variations out there and I'd love to hear about them.


Anonymous said...

I like the sound of this. Never had it before.


Anonymous said...

I will have to try your version Helen. I am a big fan of this dish! You are right, the season now calls for it!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this recipe, since I moved out of home (long time ago) I never could put my hands on cooking borsh (but if you omit these extra consonants, how would you tell the difference between "ш" and "щ"?:) I remember that my mama was also adding so called "корешки" for a flavor. I think it was a root of parsley and some other magic roots that make all the difference. And it is exactly what also stopped me from cooking borsh - in Norway where I used to live before beet root was something really exotic, hardly possible to spot anywhere. Now it is easier with this, but a parsley root? :) Ok, I guess I should simply try, following the brave ones and keeping in mind it will never be the same as mama makes at home :)

Polina, Germany

Helen said...

Hi Polina,

The parsley root that your Mom used to add is also known as parsnips in English (don't know what it is in German). In US, it's widely available in every store (looks like white carrots). You can peel one and let it dry, then add it to the soup. Cooking Russian food used to upset me because my stuff never tasted quite like my Mom's. But now I got over it. As you do it more, you'll develop your own style and won't be comparing every single bite to your Mom's. Because nothing can ever taste as good as our Mom's cooking :)


Pille said...

With fewer letters and more flavours:)
Lovely borsh recipe, Helen! (It's 'borš' in Estonian). I'm on the mood for old soup recipes and made solyanka earlier this week. Borsh is soon on the menu, as is rassolnik.
Re: parsnip - it's not widely available in Estonia, but both celeriac/celery root and parsley roots are, so I'd probably use these in borsh instead..

Helen said...

Hi Pille,

Rasolnik and Solanka -- Mmmm :) Those are my other favorites.

Enjoy winter and all those wonderful soups.


Anonymous said...

Your recipe shows how much love you've invested into the soup :)

When we cook it at home, we do not use bacon. In the countyside they use "salo". In urban areas people use mostly oil.

Adding beans will make the soup heartier.

To add a "twist" one would marinate the beets before adding them to the soup.

Adding diced bell-peppers, garlic and lots of parsley helps as well.
Additionally, people add parsley roots (Hamburg root parsley?) to the mix of onion and carrots.

Elea, Wisconsin

Jeffvi said...

You said: "Now the spelling... The most reasonable way to transliterate "Борщ" is "Borsh." What are all those extra consonants doing in the English version is a mystery to me. Maybe they are trying to compensate for something."

Well obiously you don't speak Russian at all.
Ok so the letter: "Ш" can be transliterated as "sh", but in "Борщ" it's the letter "Щ" , not the same one !
And the best transliteration is "shtsh" because, it sounds like a mix of "Ш" (sh) and "Ч" (tsh)

Пока !

ErinM said...


I am enjoying this fresh-off-the-stove soup as I type!

I have never had borsh. The closest I have had was a beet soup made with duck stock. It was GOOD, but your soup is FANTASTIC!

I confess that I cheated by using store-bought stock (to use up a supply in the cabinet), but promise to make my own next time. My husband and I had started using a juicer over the summer, and found that a little raw beet goes a LONG way. I was worried that borsh would have the same strong earthy taste, but it is much mellower from roasting. I am you have any other suggestions for the use of roasted beets?

I have a few questions about your recipe:

1. Should the cabbage be shredded so it's in strands? Or into smaller pieces as in coleslaw?

2. It felt weird to drain crushed tomatoes — they're so...goopy? Why not diced tomatoes, or something that doesn't include so much sauce in the can?

3. OK, this is more about the beef stock I used. I had a couple of different brands — one was clear and one was cloudy. Why?

Thank you SO much for your blog, this recipe, and your response!


Helen said...

Hi Erin,

Here are the answers:

1. Should the cabbage be shredded so it's in strands? Or into smaller pieces as in coleslaw?

It should be in thin strands about 1/8 inch wide and 1 inch long.

2. It felt weird to drain crushed tomatoes — they're so...goopy? Why not diced tomatoes, or something that doesn't include so much sauce in the can?

Don't worry about straining if it's a pain. I don't strain them thoroughly any way. You could use diced tomotoes, but then you'll get actual chunks of tomato in your soup. That might be perfectly fine, but since I try to make borsh as close to my Mom's as possible, I prefer to have the sweetness and acidity of tomatoes without the chunks.

3. OK, this is more about the beef stock I used. I had a couple of different brands — one was clear and one was cloudy. Why?

Don't know. Commercially made stocks vary and I don't really know how they make them. If it tasted fine, don't worry about the cloudiness.


Anonymous said...

Borscht is not Russian soup, Schchi is!

Anonymous said...

Agreed with the Anonymous.

Borshch is Ukrainian/Polish, but NEVER Russian.

Yes, Russians eat shchi. With no beets.

Helen said...

Ok folks, by the same logic, crepes are not French. They are Italian. That's where French got the idea originally :)

Anonymous said...

Crepe originêpe

Anonymous said...

I believe the extra "T" comes from the Jewish-hertage influence in Poland and Russia where it was made without meat...or using chicken stock. This is what a Russian of Jewish decent told me at least.