White Borscht (Biały Barszcz) or “sour soup” as I call it, is one of my favorite Polish soups. I even make it for my friends in California and some of them have really taken to it. My version is slightly more complex than the ones I remember from Poland. It should be with all the wide variety of ingredients available to me now. The soup is a Carb-bomb, made with a mix of bread and flour that is called the sourdough starter. If you are on a diet, then borscht is probably not the soup for you, but if you want a tasty hearty soup then go for it.
The secret to good Borscht is the “starter”. In Poland during the 80’s you could either buy a little packet of dry starter or a liquid starter at a market, but the good ones and the most desirable ones were homemade.
In fact, a little industry was built around starters. There were several houses that would make and sell starters to their neighbors. I remember my mom and grandma used to sent me to one of these houses to purchase the starter with a handful of coins. It was a dingy home on the corner of a beat tenement building.
It was the shabbiest apartment in the shabbiest building in a city of shabby buildings. It certainly looked like the “speakeasy” of starters. I knocked on the paint chipped door and a moldy, musty smell wafted out of the building. It was so pungent that you could feel the smell like humidity. Ironically, the woman who answered the door seemed dry and dusty to me. She had a particular nervousness about her, as if starters weren’t the only things being pedaled out of this place. Her soup starters were packaged in vodka bottles and all stored behind tattered curtains that were untimely aged from cigarette smoke and whatever else they were doing in there.
My mother eventually stopped going to this house and starting getting her starter from a co-worker. And as she gained more confidence in her culinary skills started making her own. Like I said, this is the key to borscht. My grandmother would make white borscht with only a starter and some cream and tiny potato cubes, with no added seasoning. She called it “Zalewajka”, I don’t know what that meant but I always interpreted it as “bland and boring”. When my mother would make it, she added to the starter, cream and potatoes, dried wild mushrooms, marjoram, fried onions, polish style bratwurst or bacon and sometimes a hard-boiled egg. Now, what was once filler had become a delicious meal.
I have even gone further than my mother. I guess that’s the tradition in our family: taking things one-step beyond the generation before. If I have a daughter I hope she does the same. So I am going to tell you how to do my “sour soup”, and we will call it “one-step sour soup”.
One-Step Sour Soup
Soup starter (portion for about 1.3 gallons/5 liters of soup)
• 5 tablespoons of wheat flour
• 5 tablespoons of rye flour
• 1 whole-wheat bread crust (from one thick slice)
• 2 cloves of garlic
- In large ceramic pot add flour, add the bread crust, garlic and pour 4 cups of boiling water.
- Cover with a linen cloth and let stand for about four days.
- If the entire starter will not be used immediately, it is best to set aside in the refrigerator so it won’t get fermented.
- sourdough starter from the recipe above
- 1-1 1/2 pound baby potatoes
- 8 big, peeled cloves of garlic
- handful of dried wild mushrooms
- 1 lemon
- 3 teaspoons fresh or dried marjoram
- 4 ounces of smoked bacon
- 4 onions with chives
- salt and pepper
- Wash potatoes, remove any dark spots.
- Pour sourdough starter over potatoes, add garlic and mushrooms.
- Cook covered until potatoes are almost cooked, add marjoram, salt and pepper to taste and boil for another 20 minutes.
- If the soup is too acidic more water may be added, if it is not sufficiently acidic you can squeeze the lemon juice in (depending on your preferences; don’t put lemon in at all if you think soup is too acidic).
- Onions with chives cut into pieces about 0.5 cm long.
- Cut strips of bacon into narrow pieces measuring approximately ¼“ and fry in a hot pan until crisp, before the bacon is completely rendered add the onion and cook until it starts caramelizing; be careful not to burn the bacon.
- Separate the bacon and onions from the rendered fat and place on paper towel to drain and then add to the soup at your discretion.
Enjoy the best Polish soup ever!