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What is Borscht?

Diane Goettel
Updated May 16, 2024
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Borscht, which is sometimes also spelled borsch and borshch, is a vegetable soup that is almost always made with beets. The use of beets in this soup lend the dish a vibrant red color. There are some versions made with without beets. There is an orange version, which is made with tomatoes, and a green one, which has a sorrel base. However, beet borscht is the most common form of this soup.

This is a very common dish in Germany and Eastern Europe. It is believed that the soup was originally created in the Ukraine and then shared with nearby countries. Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe brought borscht to the United States. Although it is not as popular as chicken noodle or tomato soups, it is common in the United States, especially in areas with large Jewish communities.

Beet borscht can be prepared and served in two distinct ways: hot and cold. The hot version is a very hearty soup that includes many vegetables in addition to beets. These may include cabbage, cucumber, beans, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, and tomatoes. Hot borscht might also be made with meats such as chicken, pork, or beef. Of course, in the Jewish tradition, this soup is never made with pork. When hot, it is generally more like stew than soup and is often served with dark bread.

Cold borscht is common to the culinary traditions of Ashkenazi Jews — Jews of European heritage. This soup is much thinner than hot versions, and is almost always vegetarian. It is a sweet soup made of beets, onion, a bit of sugar, and lemon juice. Cold borscht is often garnished with a dollop of sour cream at the center of the bowl.

Cold is the most common type of borscht served in the United States, because it was this type that Jewish immigrants brought with them. The soup is most common on the east coast, especially in New York. In fact, in New York City, there are dozens of diners that serve it. If you happen to find yourself in the Big Apple with a hankering for this soup, be sure to take yourself to the Carnegie Deli. While the Carnegie Deli is famous for its triple-decker sandwiches and celebrity clientele, it also serves some of the best borscht in the country.

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Diane Goettel
By Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount Vernon, New York with her husband, Noah. They are the proud parents of a Doberman Pinscher named Spoon. Specialties: book editing, book marketing, book publishing, freelance writing, magazine publishing, magazine writing, copywriting,"
Discussion Comments
By anon220422 — On Oct 07, 2011

when do you serve borscht and are there any traditions where you serve it?

By anon195518 — On Jul 12, 2011

As the anon124574 indicated, the American Borscht has very little do with the real Borscht.

In fact, the soup referred to as Borscht in the USA is much closer to the Russian Svekol'nik or Beet Soup, except that Svekol'nik also has potatoes.

The Borscht basic ingredients are: cabbage, beets, potatoes, carrots and tomato paste. In the real hot version, it can be made with beef or pork and can be made so rich in fat that a spoon dropped in the middle will stand on its own.

In the vegetarian version, the meat is the only ingredient excluded.

I'm not sure what kind of sour liquid anon20557 refers to as I think he is confusing two things. One is the sour liquid or brine - usually a basis for marinating pickles or squash and can include cherry or other aromatic berry leaves. The fermented drink called Kvas is made out of the rye bread.

The brine is sometimes added to the Svekolnik (beet soup) and the Kvas is used to make an entirely different kind of soup.

By anon124574 — On Nov 06, 2010

First of all "Borshch". I'm from Ukraine, and i can tell you that described version of our national dish is wrong. You can make this dish in this way.

1. Take a red beet, cut it into straws. Then cut a few (2-3) carrots into cubes. Cut one big onion into half-rings. Put this mixture in a pan, add a few spoons of tomato paste and 2-3 grated tomatoes (tomato puree). Stew it with sunflower oil till it is ready.

2. Fill a casserole with meat broth or water halfway and put it to heat. Cut 2-3 potatoes into cubes and put them in boiling water. When potatoes are nearly ready, put them into a casserole. Add here boiled beans, sliced root of parsley, a half-ring of sweet pepper. Cook it 10 minutes on low fire. Cut some cabbage (as much as you wish) and add it to the casserole. Borshch must be thick. Cook it 10 mins. Turn the fire off.

3. Take a bunch of parsley and chop it. Then cut 2-3 pieces of garlic. Put borshch to plate, add parsley and garlic. If you want you can add a spoon of sour cream. Eat it with dark bread and green onion. Best regards.

Your Alexander.

By anon33682 — On Jun 09, 2009

I saw a woman in my neighborhood picking green cherries from a tree and asked her what she did with them. She did not speak English but it sounded like she was speaking Russian. She said "borscht" and "meat". I asked, "Cooked?" She indicated yes. Could it be she makes something from these green cherries as the sour basis of her borscht?

By anon20557 — On Nov 02, 2008

In Eastern Europe, borscht means two things.

The first is the end-product, a sour soup made with beets and/or whatever.

But the second thing is the common denominator: the ingredient, the sour liquid. It is prepared out of wheat bran and several other things (my grandma used to put sour cherry leaves in it :) ). I think specialty shops carry it even in America - think Russian, Romanian, Polish.

Basically any soup can be transformed into borscht if you put the sour liquid in it, at the end of the cooking, and just bring it to a boil again. Substitutes are baby, unripen fruit (plums, apricots etc) or lemon zest. But the real "borscht made with borscht" is unbeatable.

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount...
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