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what's in your borscht?

what's in your borscht?Let’s begin with some borscht ABCs. Do you like it hot or cold?  If you answered “both,” don’t worry: you are not necessarily bipolar. Hot and cold borschts (I couldn’t resist using the plural here just to see an 8-letter word that has only one vowel) are two entirely different entities. Their only common ingredient is beets — but if you were to refer to every Russian dish made with beets as borscht, you’d be in big trouble.  –> skip the intro –>

As a matter of fact, growing up in Minsk, I knew the cold beet soup not as borscht but as холодник — kholodnik (from Russian kholod — cold).  And there were 2 kinds of kholodnik: a red and a green one. If you happen to patronize any of the Russian dining establishments in Brighton Beach, you might have met the green incarnation, traditionally made with sorrel (or щавель [shchavel] in Russian — hence the name Schav, a cold soup in a jar that you occasionally see next to gefilte fish and matzo balls in the “Manischewitz” section of your supermarket).

When my grandparents first moved from Minsk to Chicago, my grandpa especially missed the green knolodnik.  However, the greengrocers of Devon Ave didn’t sell sorrel; so, my grandma would cheat by making it with spinach and adding lots of lemon juice.  This spring I planted some sorrel in the garden and once it provides me with enough cooking material, I’ll revisit the topic.  As to the hot borscht, we’ll discuss it in depth once it becomes more weather-appropriate.

One more urgent borscht-ABC question that I simply must address before proceeding to the recipe: what’s up with borscht’s 5 random consonants in a row?????  Why are chilled soups more challenging to spell than to make? There are certainly more characters in the name of this summer beet treat than it has ingredients.  I can’t tell you with certainty how borscht got its spelling but I have a theory.  It involves a quick linguistic analysis though; so, if you’re not here for a Russian lesson, click here or scroll down — the recipe proper will commence shortly.

For those of you who are still here, let’s begin with the Cyrillic spelling of borscht: БОРЩ.   The first 3 characters are a piece of cake: Б=B, О=O, Р=R.  It is the odd-looking Щ that caused the confusion.  In a way, said Щ epitomizes the Russian phonetic system: it represents a rather complex sound that slides subtly from “sh” to “ch” (like in fresh chives, if you quickly say the 2 words together).  Understandably,  Щ is a pain to transliterate in less postalveolar-fricative-centric languages.  But the main (and potentially shocking) point is that there is no T sound in Russian БОРЩ.  Where could it have come from, you ask?  I blame it on the Germans who, undoubtedly, got a whiff of borscht before the English, yet were not adequately equipped to accommodate its phonetic make-up in their alphabet.  You see, Germans spell sh as sch and ch as tsch; and thus for a diligent German speller Щ turned into schtsch.  Imagine yourself as a (somewhat less diligent) English scrivener charged with translating from the German a recipe for some culinary enigma called Borschtsch: how many times can you copy this word before losing your beets?  To us, borscht[sch] might not seem like too radical of an abbreviation but for its time it must have been quite a slap in the face…

And, finally, to the recipe.  My grandma used to make the best cold borscht I’ve ever tasted.  Once I asked her for a recipe, and she said “What recipe?  Boil the beets, grate them, add sugar salt and sour salt.”  That’s how Jewish grandmothers cook, with no recipes — they just know exactly how it’s supposed to taste and they make it perfectly.  It was that exact balance of sweet, salt and sour that made her borscht so perfect.  I never got any exact measurements from her but I’ve been always trying to recreate that balance based on what my taste buds remember so well.  I’d be happy to have it every day, all  summer long.

Cold Borscht, Minsk Style

(also known as kholodnik / chłodnik / svekolnik, also known as vegetarian summer borscht / borsch / bortsch / borstch / borsh / barszcz / borshch / борщ)

Since cold borscht recipe isn’t an exact science, I’m gonna rely mostly on visuals for explanation.  Just follow these steps: it is really really easy.

a bunch of beets1.  The 2 main ingredients in cold borscht are beets and water.  My approximate proportion is 1 medium-large beet per 1 quart (liter) of water. Put a large pot of water (I’m using ca. 5 quarts of water here) on the stove on high heat and proceed to step 2.large pot of water on high heat


2. Peel the beets (wear gloves if you don’t want your fingers to turn magenta), rinse them to make sure there’s no sand, and place into the pot.  Bring to a quick boil, reduce heat, and cook covered for about 3o minutes, more or less, depending on the size and the age of the beets.  Poke beets with a sharp knife to get a feel of whether they’re cooked through.

peel the beets

3. Take out the beets and let them cool a little before grating them using a large grater.  If not using a food processor, make sure you don’t burn your fingers handling those hot beets!

4. If the beets are young and fresh, I like to use their stems and greens as well.  While beets are cooking and cooling, chop them up and set aside. If they’re not young and fresh, save them for the compost pile.

grating beets

5. Return grated beets to the pot, bring to a brisk boil, add chopped greens and immediately turn off the heat.

chopping up beet greens and stalks

  • 6. Now comes the most creative part where you achieve the desired balance of sweetness, saltiness and acidity.  For the 5 quarts / 5 beets formula, I usually start with:
  • 3 Tbsp sugar (I like using brown sugar but the original version calls for white; I’ve also experimented with a combination of sugar and splenda and, although technically a sacrilege, it worked quite nicely)
  • 2 Tbsp salt
  • 1-2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar & 1 Tbsp lemon juice. Disclaimer: this is my formula. My grandma always used “sour salt” (citric acid) for acidity but since it’s not a common seasoner in the US, I had to come up with a substitute (which, I believe, is better for you anyway).
  • Taste and adjust.  Keep in mind that you’ll be serving borscht with various garnishes, i.e. sour cream will slightly increase acidity and other stuff will slightly dilute the saltiness.

garnish for cold borscht

7. Prepare the garnishes: chopped dill, cucumbers, scallions, hard-boiled eggs, boiled potatoes.  Add them (and sour cream!) to individual bowls.

serve with sour cream

8. Important note: let the borscht cool completely before refrigerating it. This will take 4-5 hours but you want it to be nice and cold.

what's in your borscht?

5 quarts seems like a lot of borscht, I know…  But I always make a huge pot thinking it’ll last us a while and then, somehow, it disappears very quickly.  I made some for dinner yesterday and look forward to have it for lunch as soon as I’m done with this post.


Hot borscht recipe.


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