Some dishes are extravaganzas of meat, and some are unbridled celebrations of vegetables. And then there's borscht, which is decisively both. That makes it one of the best winter meals in my home, where my wife, Kate, pretty much wants only vegetables, while I often crave at least a little meat (okay, sometimes a lot). Borscht is so chock-full of an exciting array of both that neither of us ever feels deprived.
The borscht I'm talking about here, to be clear, is the hot, sweet-sour Ukrainian style, which, according to Anya von Bremzen in her excellent Russian cookbook, Please to the Table, is so popular in Ukraine's neighboring regions and around the world that it's often misattributed to Russia.
Regardless of its origins, defining exactly what's in the soup is tricky. While countless types of borscht can be found throughout Eastern Europe (and not all of them are red), this one is famous for that deep burgundy color—thanks mostly to beets, but often some tomato as well. Beyond that, cabbage, potatoes, onion, celery root (a.k.a. celeriac), and carrots are common, but plenty of other vegetables and fruits, from apples to bell peppers and beans, can find their way into the pot.
As for the meats, your options are equally varied. My recipe calls for beef short ribs, fresh pork belly, beef marrow bones, and ham hocks (plus some optional kielbasa), but you could use all sorts of long-cooking cuts, like brisket, pork ribs, beef chuck, and shanks. They're all stewing meats that are rich in collagen, a tough connective tissue that breaks down into silky gelatin with heat and time, creating a rich, flavorful broth.
Making borscht starts, then, with simmering those meats—most of which I brown first for a deeper flavor—to tenderize them and make that broth base for the soup. To enhance the flavor even more, it helps to add aromatics to the pot as well, like onion, celery, and carrot. A mix of herbs, including dill, parsley, and bay leaf, contributes more aromatic depth.
Several hours later, when the meat is tender and the broth is ready, I strain it, reserving the meat and marrow bones and throwing out all the aromatics—they'll be cooked to death and flavorless by this time anyway. At this point, you can refrigerate the broth and meats overnight and finish the borscht the next day, or you can continue straight away.
To finish the soup, I sauté a new batch of diced aromatics—onion, celery, carrots, and garlic—in fat until they're tender. You could use vegetable oil here, but you should end up with a generous amount of richly flavored rendered beef and pork fat on the surface of the broth. I skim that off and use some of it for sautéing, then add the broth back to the pot and bring it to a simmer.
I dice the meats, removing and discarding any bones, and add them to the pot. Make sure not to waste the beef marrow bones, either: Push the marrow out of each one, chop it up, and add it to the soup. That's flavor right there.
Next, I load the soup up with even more vegetables, including celery root, parsnips, cabbage, tomatoes, and beets, most of which I cut into dice. I suspect some people will wonder why I opt for dicing, when borscht is often made with shredded or julienned vegetables. My answer is...I like it that way. I find the soup more elegant when much of it is uniformly diced instead of shredded to bits. If you prefer it otherwise, you can run the vegetables through the shredding disk of a food processor.
A lot of recipes have you roast the beets before adding them, which I did early on in my testing; they take a while to cook, so it seemed like a good time-saver to roast them while the broth is simmering. But then a friend asked me why I didn't just cut them up raw and add them to the pot with everything else, and I realized that not only did I not have a good answer, but it seemed like a worthy variable to test.
So I made a subsequent batch in which I peeled the raw beets, cut them up, and added them to the pot with everything else, and I was quickly won over by the results. First, when diced, they cook through as rapidly as all the other vegetables, so the time saved through roasting first wasn't relevant—in retrospect, it's extremely obvious that small cubes of beets will cook much faster than large whole ones. More importantly, the final soup made with un-roasted beets tasted, well, beetier, and had a much deeper purple color—clearly, you lose valuable beet juices and flavor with that initial roasting step.
I love beets and wanted a very beet-forward soup, so using raw beets immediately became my preferred method. If you're not the biggest fan of beets, though, this may be a reason to opt for roasting them first.
Next, I add diced red potatoes, along with some kielbasa—optional, but it adds a great smoky flavor—then cook it just until the potatoes are done. At this point, the borscht should be so tightly packed full of solid ingredients that you'll be able to stand a spoon up in it.
The last step is to balance the final sweet-sour flavor of the soup. Many recipes call for adding a touch of sugar to play up the soup's sweetness, leading to a more intense sweet-sour effect later. I don't do that, though, since I think the vegetables in the soup contribute all the sweetness I want on their own.
For the sourness, I experimented with fermenting my own beets, with the hope that I could add the resulting tart liquid to the pot. That ended up a failure, which I poured down the drain, so I turned to red wine vinegar instead. (This is probably for the best, since I'm guessing most people don't want to have to start their borscht two months ahead of time just to get one ingredient ready.)
How much vinegar you add depends on both how sweet your soup is, with more sweetness requiring more sourness to balance it out, and also on personal preference—do you want just a lightly tart borscht, or one that has a real jolt of acid running through it? I leave it up to you.
No bowl of borscht is complete without some minced fresh dill and a big dollop of sour cream, which I gussy up with ground toasted caraway seeds, a flavor that plays so well with these ingredients.
At this point, if this soup doesn't have something for everyone, I don't know what does.