My grandparents on my father’s side were Ukrainian.  Grandma came to Canada as a very young woman, to help on the farm by working in the kitchen. Later, she and Grampa homesteaded in Alberta.  My Grandmother’s own kitchen always reflected her heritage, and the bounty of her garden.  Of course, she wasn’t the only Ukrainian Grandmother in my part of the world – in Edmonton, it seemed like almost everybody had a “Baba”.  How you made cabbage rolls, pyrohy, and borscht were topics of long debate that always began, “Well, when my Baba made them, she used to….”  Discussion of tomato sauce with cabbage rolls could become quite heated!

Which brings me to borscht.  My Grandmother didn’t use tomatoes in her borscht, and you won’t find them in my recipe either.  Borscht can be made any time of the year, because beets are such good keepers.  You seem to be able to get them fresh (with the greens still attached) from points south almost all year ’round at the grocery store.  My Dad used to rhapsodize about young beets, fresh dill, and tiny potatoes the size of marbles, so a mid-summer visit to a Farmer’s Market would undoubtedly yield the peak of perfection.  The earthy, rich flavors are just as achievable mid-winter, although the elegance of those mid-summer vegetables will be missing.

You can Google up all kinds of nutritional reasons to eat borscht (ask about anthocyanins – another source of antioxidants), but I like it because it’s delicious!

When my non-Ukrainian Mother produced “Beet Bisque” from a magazine recipe, I rejoiced. As a child, I was a painfully picky eater, so this smoothly blended mixture was much more palatable than that strange red soup full of vegetables I hated — and it was PINK!  If you are a picky eater, or if you feed someone who is hard to please, try the bisque version of this recipe.  It’s so full of goodness – and it’s beautiful!

Borscht (Red Beet Soup)


This entire recipe is “to taste”.  Baking is science – soup is art.  Can you make it with golden beets?  Of course you can, but it will be…um… golden…

Choose the size of your vegetables with care.  Remember, you’re not feeding the farm hands at threshing time.  My ratio of ingredients is:  equal parts beets, potatoes, cabbage and onions, with ½ part each carrot and celery.  There are some elements of “mire poix” going on there, which reflect the fact I went to school.  The vegetable police will not come to your door if you add a little extra whatever.  The idea is that you want a bit of everything in each bite, so if you overload on the potatoes, make sure it’s on purpose. The suggestions below will give you about 5 cups of soup.

  • 1 beet, a bit bigger than a tennis ball, but smaller than a softball, yielding a generous cup when diced
  • Half a softball-sized onion, or 3 to 4 good-sized shallots, or all the pale parts of a good-sized leek:  about a cup, finely chopped
  • 1 carrot (not too small; maybe 2 if they’re really small), chopped prettily if you’re not going to puree the soup:  about half a cup
  • 1 celery stalk, ditto the chopping:  about half a cup
  • 1 potato, about the same size as the beet, peeled and diced, or grated – depends on what your Ukrainian Grandmother used to do. If you’re leaving your veggies whole, use a waxy potato (like a red-skinned one); if you’re going for the bisque, use a starchy one (like a Russet).  Yukon Gold potatoes are switch hitters, and my personal choice.
  • 2 nice thick slices of bacon, cut across into what the French call “lardons”, and my Grandmother called “cut up your bacon…”
  • Some cabbage, green or red.  If you buy it whole, slice up a cup of thin shreds, and then cross-cut them into pieces that will fit on a spoon.  My soup mentor at school insisted that any ingredient you put in the pot had to fit in a soup spoon, for ease of eating.  If you buy bagged slaw, use a handful and give it a rough chop.
  • “If you like garlic, put garlic.  If you have bay leaf, put bay leaf.”  Direct quote.  If you’re not pureeing the soup, slice the garlic.
  • 3 cups of chicken stock, or enough to float the vegetables.  My Grandmother used pork button bones where I use bacon, so she didn’t need stock, but you do.  My friend Barry uses small-cut spare ribs — he doesn’t need stock.
  • Dill.  Fresh is best; dried is ok; dill seed will work if you don’t have anything else.
  • Something to make the soup sour.  That could be white wine vinegar, or lemon juice.  My Grandmother used rhubarb — really!  So do I, in the summer when I have loads of it in my garden.
  • Salt and pepper
  • Sour cream or Greek Yogurt – depends on what you have in your fridge.

If it’s the middle of summer, and your garden is yielding beautiful vegetables every single day, feel free to add fresh peas, green beans, and whatever else is going on out there.  If it’s the middle of winter, you can throw in a handful of whatever frozen veg if you want to.  I’m a purist, however:  it’s beets, onion, carrots, celery, potato and cabbage, for me, period, and even the cabbage is optional.  If you buy beets with nice leaves still attached, slice them up and add them just at the end of cooking.


If the beet is mature, it needs to be peeled.  You could boil it for 20 minutes, or roast it for an hour to slip the skin, but the easiest thing to do is simply peel it with a vegetable peeler. One beet won’t leave you (or your cutting board) permanently pink.  Besides, you want all those anthocyanins (the red color) in your soup, not in some cooking water.  If you’re fond of roasted beets, do an extra one for the soup.  If you are using baby beets, don’t bother peeling them at all.

Did I say you could use canned beets?  No, I did not.  (But you can – I just don’t like canned vegetables.  They have much salt and no flavor.)


Get everything all ready.  This is called “mise en place”, or “everything in its place”, and it saves you from searching for stuff once you start cooking — well worth the effort.

I like to use my mandolin slicer to make lovely julienne, but you can chop or shred any old way you want to.

If you are using raw beets, it is important that the beets and carrots are cut roughly the same size, as they take the longest to cook and you want them done at the same time.  If you are planning to serve your soup “whole”, you can choose whether you want pieces of potato in the finished soup, or if you want to grate the potato so it thickens the soup and pretty much dissolves during the cooking process.


In your 3 quart/litre saucepan, cook the bacon over medium to medium-high heat, until it’s nicely browned and most of the fat has rendered.


Remove the bacon, drain it on a paper towel, and set it aside.  Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat.

Add the onions, and reduce the heat to medium.  Put the lid on for a minute, and the steam from the onions will dissolve all the brown goodness left from the bacon. Continue to cook them over medium heat until they’re softened, anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes, depending on how finely you chopped them. They don’t need to brown.

If you’re using garlic, add it to the onions and let it cook just until the aroma lifts out of the pan.  Add all the rest of the vegetables, the chicken stock, and the cooked bacon.  Add the bay leaf at your discretion (I didn’t have a bay leaf.  I never have a bay leaf, and I don’t miss it.)

This is where my Grandmother would make a sort-of “bouquet garni” with rhubarb stalk(s) and fresh dill, tying them together with a bit of kitchen string.  Lemons were scarce, and rhubarb was plentiful.  If you are using a stalk or bunch of fresh dill, fold it up and add it here.  If you are using dried dill, hold off until later.  If you are using either white wine vinegar or lemon juice for tanginess, hold off on them as well.

Bring everything to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a low simmer.  Half-cover the pot and cook until the beets and carrots are tender, which will likely be about 20 minutes.  The time depends on how small you cut your veg:  big pieces = long time, small pieces = less time.  Vegetable soup never takes all day, and in fact it will be less wonderful if you over-cook it.  Stop when the vegetables are just tender.  If you’re going to add fresh garden peas or green beans, they only need to show up for about the last 5 minutes of cooking.  Frozen vegetables only need enough heat to thaw.

If you are making traditional borscht, you’re almost done.  If you used rhubarb, fresh dill, and/or bay leaf, remove them now.

Taste your soup.  Season with salt and black pepper. Stir to dissolve the salt, then taste again.

If you didn’t use rhubarb and fresh dill like my grandmother did, add white wine vinegar or lemon juice and dried dill until the flavor just sings.  That dry dill will take a few minutes to rehydrate and make its statement. For a recipe this size, a teaspoon of dried dill and the juice of 1 lemon is about right for me. I like quite a lot of pepper.

When seasoning, start small and work up to perfection.  This is your soup – when it tastes delicious, you’ve done your job

Serve garnished with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of dill or chives.

And fresh bread – lots of fresh bread.

And butter.

Borscht Bisque

If you are taking the next step, and making your soup into “Borscht Bisque”, do everything  pretty much the same, except you don’t need to be so technical with your knife skills.  Puree the soup with an immersion blender, in batches in a regular blender, or in a food processor.  Make sure you do this with care – pureed borscht sprayed on white walls will stain in a significant (and dare I say, magnificent)  way!  Return the puree to the soup pot.

Season with salt, pepper and dried dill, if you didn’t use fresh.  Make it sour to your liking with white wine vinegar or lemon juice if you didn’t use rhubarb.

Now comes the tricky bit.  Depending on how much soup you have, you want to add sour cream or Greek yogurt to finish, about ¼ cup for every cup of soup.  I add flour to my dairy to prevent it from curdling, 1 teaspoon per quarter cup – just stir them together before adding to the soup.  This is especially important if you use lower fat dairy products, which are more likely to split than full-fat ones.  Rice flour, or tapioca starch will work if wheat flour is not for you.  Simmer the soup very gently for at least 5 minutes to eliminate any raw flour taste.

You can make a pretty presentation by thinning some sour cream or yogurt with a bit of cream or milk, then putting it in a little squeeze bottle to make patterns.  You can make dots of your garnishing cream on the surface of the soup, and then run the tip of a knife or a toothpick through them to make a string of hearts.

Leftover borscht can be stored in covered containers in the fridge for about a week.  This is really good soup to take to an ailing friend.  Don’t forget that beets carry their color right through your digestive system, though.  The results can be quite alarming.

The “whole vegetables” version of borscht is not a good candidate for freezing.  Potatoes don’t like to be frozen in chunks – their texture suffers a lot. If you grated your potato, you could freeze your soup with good success.

The bisque freezes quite well – once you puree the potato, it doesn’t seem to cause a problem anymore.  I froze a batch, and reheated it in the microwave with great success.  It needs a good stir, but if you stabilize your sour cream with flour, everything comes together quite nicely.

If you wanted to make a really big batch of borscht and can it (and you know how), that works well.  My Grandmother just canned the beets, but you already know how I feel about that.

If you have a Ukrainian Grandmother of your own, celebrate your heritage!  I am so grateful there was a farm to visit when I was growing up, and a garden in my back yard.  I think you value what you eat more if you see the seeds being planted, wash the mud off what grows, and enjoy the flavor of food that was in the ground just a few hours before it appeared on your plate.  If gardening isn’t possible for you for whatever reason, plant dill and other herbs in a window box next spring, just for the joy of watching them grow.