Eaten throughout Eastern Europe with many iterations, this beloved (by some) staple of the Ashkenazi kitchen is made with winter roots including, of course, beets, but also potatoes and, optionally, carrots and cabbage. My version is highly adaptable to your own borscht opinions and, I think, makes a squarely classic-tasting beet borscht, parve or meat, to your preference.
Though it's not per se a strictly Jewish dish, borscht entered the Jewish food lexicon to such an extent that at midcentury, the common Jewish vacation towns in the Catskills in Upstate New York were known as the "borscht belt." (You can see incredible, resoundingly eerie photos of abandoned Borscht Belt resorts in this article.) Just as there are different versions of borscht made throughout Eastern Europe, so are there different versions belonging to differing Jewish communities, from Ukrainian to Romanian. They all have in common the vibrant color and flavor of beets, cooked down in beef, chicken, or vegetable stock along with other trusted wintry vegetables.
Ingredients for borscht
The most basic of borschts requires little more than beets, water, a bit of lemon juice (probably sour salt in the old country), plus salt and pepper, maybe garlic. This is the food of meager days and bare kitchen cupboards. Nowadays, when it's less of a luxury, borscht is delicious made with beef broth, or chicken stock, if you prefer a lighter flavor—or vegetable stock, for a parve version, that you should obviously eat with sour cream.
Besides the beets and broth, my version of borscht has lots of options (and my favorite way to make it is with all of them): potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and white beans. In addition to the garlic, salt, and plenty of black pepper, I like to add dill and bay leaf as flavorings.
Traditionally, borscht is made by boiling whole beets, which are peeled and grated only after cooking. After reading lots of borscht recipes and experimentation, I've settled on an easier method that involves peeling and grating the beets raw in a food processor (along with the carrots, if you're using them), and then sauteing them until they're softened before adding them to the soup pot.
Before dealing with the beets, you'll kick off the soup by bringing the stock and water to a boil in a large stock pot, which will be your main pot. How much water you add will depend on how many vegetables you're using and how soupy or thick you prefer your borscht. Start with about 6 cups of water (plus 6 cups of stock—or more water, if you don't have any stock on hand—for a total of 12 cups), then add more as needed. The potatoes go in to the boiling water, as does the cabbage, if you're using it, plus two bay leaves. The beans, if you use them, get added a bit later to the main soup pot. (I think they're a stellar addition!)
Once the soup pot's going, go ahead and grate the beets and carrots, if using. These will get sauteed in a bit of olive oil (or any other oil you like) in a skillet, along with some garlic. When the beets are softened, a good 10-15 minutes, you'll add them to the soup pot. The lemon juice, salt, pepper, and dill go in along with the beets and everything gets cooked together for a while longer.
Borscht is served hot, often by itself, as it's hearty and filling, especially if you have some black bread alongside. If you make a parve version (with vegetable stock, or even plain water), it's extra good with a big dollop of sour cream on top.
Looking for more retro favorites?
- Whitefish Salad - parve
- Cream Cheese and Jam Kugel with Cornflakes Topping - dairy
- Ricotta Cheese Latkes - dairy
- Oven-Fried Latkes - parve
- Deli Roll - A Selection of Deli Meats Rolled Up in Puff Pastry - meat
Classic Beet Borscht (parve or meat)
For the soup pot:
- 6 cups water - or more, to taste - 1.4 L
- 4 cups beef chicken, or vegetable broth (or more water) - 1 L
- 2 large or 3 medium yellow potatoes
- ½ head of cabbage - optional
- 1 15 oz can white beans, including the liquid - optional - 425 g
- 2 bay leaves
- ¼ cup lemon juice (from 1 large lemon) - 60 ml
- 2 tsp kosher salt - or to taste
- ¼ tsp freshly ground pepper
- 2 Tbsp chopped dill - optional
To grate and saute:
- 2 large or 3 medium beets - washed and peeled
- 1 large onion - finely chopped
- 2 medium carrots - grated
- 2 cloves garlic - minced
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- In a large stock pot, bring the water and stock to a boil over medium-high heat. Dice the potatoes and cabbage, if using, and add to the pot, along with the bay leaves. Reduce heat to a simmer.
- Grate the beets and carrots (by hand or using a food processor) and finely dice the onion. Heat the oil a large skillet over medium heat. Sauté the onion, beets, and carrots with minced garlic until soft, 10-15 minutes. Add to the soup pot.
- Stir in the lemon juice, salt and pepper, and dill, if using. Add the beans, if using, including the liquid. Simmer for 5-10 minutes more.