I had to be convinced to like Ukrainian borscht. Not because I’d tried it before and hated it, but because, well, it is so damn red! I’ll admit it: I was put off by the color.
You see, this color, as pretty as it is, in my brain equals cherry flavoring, or strawberry, or watermelon… something sweet. Candy, not stew.
Nevertheless, when I was developing recipes for my venison cookbook Buck, Buck, Moose, more than a few people told me I needed a borscht recipe. And so I started doing research. There are lots of variants of borscht, and many do not have beets in them.
But here in the United States, when you say “borscht,” you mean a stew with beets in it, and a stew with beets in it is basically Ukrainian borscht.
Where I live near Sacramento, there are lots of Eastern European immigrants, and no shortage of Ukrainians. So I asked a bunch about how they make borscht, took notes, and this is the result.
It’s basically a rich vegetable soup based on meat broth with some meat in it — in this case, venison. The red of the beets is for show, although you certainly can taste them in the stew. Use any cut of venison here: Roasts, stew meat, neck, shanks, shoulder are all fine.
And don’t get all hung up on the venison. Use beef, lamb, pork or chicken if that’s what you like — or none at all, since vegetarian borscht is a thing.
In the wild world, goose legs would be great here, as would wild turkey or pheasant legs. A jackrabbit borscht would be nice, and you could certainly use rabbit or squirrel as well. Anything goes, more or less.
A proper borscht also has something tart going on, whether it’s lemon juice, vinegar or even just lots of sour cream. I like a little sour cream in my Ukrainian borscht, but it turns the bowl a disconcerting pink — tastes great, but not good for photos!
As you might imagine, like most stews, borscht is even better the next day. And the next. So make a big batch.
If you are looking for similarly Slavic stews, I have a great one for a Russian goose stew with barley and mushrooms, and a Polish bigos stew. Or serve this as part of a larger meal with fermented mushrooms as a starter and a plate of Russian pelmeni on the side.
- 1 ½ pounds venison cut into 1-inch chunks
- 1 quart venison or beef stock
- ½ ounce dried mushrooms
- 3 beets, about 1 pound
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 large carrot, cut into ¼-inch slices
- 1 onion, sliced from root to tip
- 1 large parsley root or parsnip, cut into ¼-inch slices
- 1 small celery root, diced (optional)
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 large potato, peeled and diced
- 1 head cabbage, roughly shredded (about 2 cups)
- Juice of 2 lemons, or 2 to 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 1 tablespoon chopped dill
- Black pepper
- Sour cream for garnish
- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- In a large Dutch oven or other heavy, lidded pot, just barely cover the venison with water and bring to a boil. Immediately turn off the heat, drain the water and reserve the venison. This removes any scum that might otherwise rise to the surface of your broth. Return the venison to the pot, add the stock and 1 quart of water. Bring to a gentle simmer and add salt to taste. Crumble the dried mushrooms into the soup, cover, and let it cook gently while you turn to the rest of the soup.
- As soon as you put the lid on the soup, move to the beets. Coat them in the oil and wrap loosely in foil. Roast in the oven for 1 hour to 90 minutes, until reasonably tender. Remove from the oven and let the beets cool enough to handle. (If you have latex gloves, put them on — beets stain.) Peel the beets and then shave them on a coarse box grater.
- Heat the butter in a sauté pan. When it’s hot, add the sliced onion and sauté over high heat until the edges brown, about 6 minutes. Drop the heat to medium-high and add the beets, carrot, celery and parsley root. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring often.
- Stir in the tomato paste, adding a ladle or two of the simmering soup to help blend everything and to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the sauté pan. Turn off the heat.
- When the venison is tender, add the diced potatoes to the soup pot and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the cabbage and simmer another 10 minutes. Add the contents of the sauté pan to the soup and cook another 5 minutes.
- When the potatoes are ready, add the lemon juice or vinegar, parsley, dill and a healthy grinding of black pepper. Serve with a dollop of sour cream in the middle of the soup.
Nicholas Osborn says
Hank, I gotta say, as a venison hunter, mushroom hunter and casual fisherman, I have tried several of your recipes and none have disappointed me yet. This dish is no exception. The flavors are so interesting and different, and the way venison blends into the mix in such a rustic way is amazing. Bravo
Mark D says
We have made this several times. It is really, really good! My only comment is that I am glad you clarified that it was two cups of cabbage because even a whole small head of regular green cabbage would be way too much. I am so happy that I found your site. The roast pheasant recipe is the best pheasant I have ever cooked and the white rabbit and garlic vinegar rabbit have me inviting beaglers to my house so that I can shoot enough rabbits to satisfy my new found cravings. I could go on and on about the shank, the tenderloin and all the other recipes. Thanks for the inspiration!
Stephanie L says
Wow. Thank you! This was so fantastic and I cannot wait to make it again with the other venison neck in my freezer. Never thought I’d say that. My son is a new hunter and caught me off guard this year with 3 deer! We shared with grandpa who took him out and mentored, but you have been a huge help in my figuring out what to do with some of this venison.
This recipe was enjoyed by my entire family. The tartness was surprising, but really what “made the dish” for me. I added a tad bit more lemon juice. The celery root also seemed to be important to the flavor so I wouldn’t skip that one even though it was a little expensive.
Kathy Sledziona says
Have had the recipe for a few weeks and didn’t have all the ingredients and wanted to make it for supper. So I did make a few substitutions: vegetable stock instead of venison stock, diced celery for celery root, diced mushrooms for dried, increased potatoes to 3 large, carrots to 2, omitted parsley root and parsnip and it still came out wonderful! Six people who had never had borscht loved it! We served it for supper with a crusty bread! New family fav!
Cornell Brown says
Do you have a favorite supplier of dried mushrooms?
Hank Shaw says
Cornell: Myself! I gather them. But if you had to buy them, Mushroom Mike in Wisconsin is good, as is Far West Fungi.
I am from Ukraine, and make borscht all the time, mostly vegetarian. Here’s my simple philosophy about it, and it serves me well, since many people find my borscht pretty good and maybe delicious.
It’s a sweet and sour soup. Beets will inevitably make it sweet. Hence you need some sour. Lemon juice or citric acid. And later sour cream, of course.
It is also a tomato-based soup, since you always add some sort of tomato product, such as paste. Hence I always add basil. I have a basil paste from the summer that is frozen (pureed basil in little oil). I add some of it.
It also has to be an earthy kind of soup. So I add lots of ground coriander.
Together with cabbage I add either beet tops or not too much of chopped kale. And by the way, red cabbage really works well for borscht, especially for its color.
At the end, of course, garlic, parsley+/-dill.
Robert Campion says
Borsch is a hearty winter soup. Keep winter illnesses away with borsch!. There is also a “Green Borsch”, which omits the beetroot, but includes spinach and sorrel. So, one for winter, one for summer.
Robert Campion says
Borsch with beets is a hearty winter soup. There is also a “Green Borsch”, made without beets, and including spinach and sorrel. So, one Borsch for winter and one for summer!
The ‘anything goes’ nature of dishes that have their roots in subsistence farmers reminds me of this comic on Pottage from the webcomic ‘Hark! A Vagrant’
Brenda Pawloski says
Thanks for that! Enjoyed it. I can see why it came to mind
joshua restad says
I was always told that traditionally it gets its sour flavor from letting it ferment a few days. Have you tried letting it sit “nine days old”? I have always been too afraid to try.
Hank Shaw says
Joshua: I have not. Not that brave!
Thank you for sharing my favorite foods.
This is certainly a very rich version of “borscht” or barszcz (Polish). The other ones you were referring to in your description, those with no beets, are probably “white barszcz” or “zurek” (try this one, with your own fermented rye flower base). For Christmas we usually make a clear and very spicy (lots of black pepper) version to drink. It uses wild dried mushroom base which gives it a distinct flavor.
Mike Pavik says
I made this when I saw it in “Buck, Buck, Moose”. My daughter loves it! She has had her high school friends over when I make it and they all love it. I have a large garden so I like how it uses up a variety of veggies. I have subbed in goose meat with good results. One of my favorites.
Matt Yoskowitz says
Can’t wait to make this. What types of cabbage do you suggest. I only have your standard red or green available to me where I live. Suggestions for not being ale to use mushrooms? My wife can’t eat them.
Sharon Creek-Siewert says
Yeah, the red thing bothers me too! Have you tried making it with orange beets? Just sayin’….. Think I’ll try it with orange beets & let you know,K?