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Borscht: It’s About the Beef, Then the Beets

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With all the talk of Russia these days because of the Winter Olympics, my thoughts have turned to an old favorite: borscht. That’s the electric-colored, beef-based beet soup Russian peasants created using what they had on hand. It endures to this day.

Beets give borscht its electric color.

Beets give borscht its electric color.

There are as many recipes out there for the dish as you can imagine and no two are alike. But there are a few basics, none more important than the beef stock that is the foundation of flavor. That’s right. The beef is more vital than the beets, at least traditionally. You see, this soup was actually a way of stretching beef flavor out into yet another meal, even when there was no beef to be had. Bones were used to create a rich stock that gave the illusion that there was meat in the soup. The magenta color of the beets was a way of masking what was really inside.

What was really inside? Vegetables and more vegetables. Beyond beets, you’ll often find cabbage, carrots, onion and probably the scraps of anything you have left behind that you want to toss in, such as a potato or turnip. (Not the potato peels, mind you. Those were used for vodka.)

If you’re a vegetarian, you can certainly use a vegetable stock. Just don’t tell my Russian ancestors.

Plus, you can serve this recipe hot or cold, depending on your tastes. I prefer it at room temperature.


2 small bunches of beets, shredded or grated
1 medium onion, shredded
1 cup of shredded carrots
1 generous teaspoon salt, plus more to season
2 cups boiling water
6 cups beef stock, divided use
3 tablespoons butter
2 cups shredded cabbage
Juice of 1 lemon
Sour cream, for garnish
Cucumber, seeded and diced, for garnish
Dill, for garnish



In a stockpot, stir together the beets, onion and carrots. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon salt (or less if you are using a salty beef stock) over vegetables. Cover with boiling water and 2 cups boiling beef stock, and simmer for 20 minutes. Add remaining 4 cups stock, butter, cabbage and lemon juice. Let simmer for an additional 15. Taste. Adjust salt. Use an immersion blender to break up the vegetables further.

Serve warm or cold in a bowl with a spoon of sour cream and about 2 tablespoons of cucumber in each serving, if desired. Sprinkle a little dill over the top of each, if desired.

Makes 10-12 servings.

From John Griffin

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