Everyone who makes borscht on a regular basis has a favorite procedure, and I’m the same way. I normally defer to America’s Test Kitchen recipes down to the last quarter teaspoon, but in the case of hot borscht, I use their recipe as a base and make some alterations. The first big difference is that I do a mostly-vegetarian version. I omit the meat, and instead of making homemade stock, I take a big shortcut and use store-bought tetra-packs of chicken or beef broth. I use 1 or 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, because I find that 5 tablespoons of wine vinegar is too much. As for the sugar, I don’t change that, because 4 tablespoons is nice. I use my Vitamix to deal with the beets (but not any of the other vegetables, because dicing is the way to go with them — otherwise they release too much flavour and overpower the beets) and that works, provided that the beets are not too big. I once got larger beets, and trying to use the Vitamix on them was a disaster, because the machine had to work so hard to get through the tough old fellows that a metallic taste was imparted to the soup. It was a sad moment, I tell you, when I realized the whole batch of finished soup was ruined.
The recipe I use is from The Best Soups and Stews, by America’s Test Kitchen. I’m typing it out as December’s recipe. I hesitated about giving it, because borscht is one of those recipes that people have such strong personal feelings about (and why not — this is a heritage dish, and traditional recipes have earned their place of honour). I didn’t want all the grandmothers in Ukraine to be scandalized that I didn’t use green beans, for example. I didn’t want the aunties in Poltava to shake their heads at the use of 2 tablespoons of tomato paste instead of tomatoes, and at the way the potatoes are incorporated at the very end (and sometimes I don’t even use them at all, truth be told).
But it’s -25 degrees Celsius outside and it’s time to make borscht, one way or another.
So I’ll come clean and show you how I make it, when nobody’s watching.
There will be no secrets between us.
This hearty, thick, ruby-red soup gets its color from beets. It is known for its characteristic sweet-sour flavor. The sour comes from the addition of vinegar, which also helps to preserve the soup, giving it a long shelf life. It benefits from being made at least a day before eating and will still be excellent five days after it is made. Hold off boiling the potatoes until you are serving the soup. Serve with the traditional accompaniment of sour, dark Russian bread or black bread. Note that the cabbage and beets will rise to the surface of the stock when first added to the pot. As they cook, the vegetables will release their water and sink down.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped medium
2 medium carrots, chopped medium
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 quarts Rich Beef Stock, strained and skimmed of fat, plus 2 cups meat shredded into bite-sized pieces
1/2 small head green or red cabbage, shredded (about 5 cups)
1 3/4 pounds beets, peeled and grated (about 5 cups)
5 to 6 tablespoons red wine vinegar [I use 1-2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar instead]
4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 bay leaf [I almost always omit this]
3/4 pound small red potatoes (each 1 to 1 1/4 inches in diameter), scrubbed
Ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresh dill
1 cup sour cream
1. Heat the butter in a large stockpot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and carrots and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds.
2. Add the tomato paste and stir in 1/2 cup of the stock to dissolve the tomato paste. Add the remaining stock, cabbage, beets, 4 tablespoons vinegar, sugar, 2 teaspoons salt, and the bay leaf. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer until the vegetables are soft and tender, 40 to 45 minutes. (The soup can be cooled and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days.)
3. Meanwhile, place the potatoes in a medium saucepan, cover with cold water, and add the remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover, and simmer, stirring once or twice to ensure even cooking. Cook until a thin-bladed paring knife or metal cake tester inserted into a potato can be removed with no resistance, 10 to 12 minutes. Drain the potatoes, cool slightly, and cut into quarters.
4. Stir the meat into the pot and remove the bay leaf. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding the remaining 1 to 2 tablespoons of vinegar, pepper to taste, and 1/4 cup dill. Place 4 potato quarters in each individual soup bowl and ladle some soup over the potatoes. Top with 2 or more pieces of potato, a generous dollop of sour cream, and a generous sprinkling of dill. Serve immediately.