Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Lacto-Fermented Borscht and Pesach

When my grandfather, alav hashalom, was nearing the end of his long and fruitful life, I had the opportunity to make dinner for him once (usually my mother cooked dinner for all of us). He requested borscht, a dish that I was altogether unfamiliar with, but which was an essential part of the Eastern European Jewish food tradition my grandfather had grown up with. In my good intention to fulfill his request, I opened a jar of sterile canned borscht from the supermarket (Ingredients: Water, Beets, Sugar, Salt, Citric Acid) and served it with sour cream, and love.

Flash forward to 2010. Today I avidly lacto-ferment in my spare time and am very interested in traditional Jewish foodways. And I've come to learn that, traditionally, borscht is not a sterile and denatured product sold in a jar, but a lacto-fermented, probiotic food produced in the home.

Now, I have realized from my conversations with people that lacto-fermentation is a generally unknown and mysterious process in modern society, and yet it is one of the oldest, safest, and most nutrient-enhancing forms of food preservation on Earth. Jewish mothers used to lacto-ferment various vegetables the way they toss food in the microwave today. It was just a part of living.

However, as Pesach approaches, those who want to be well-prepared are stocking up on overpriced, over-processed packaged foods from the ubiquitous "Passover Section" at the local supermarket, jars of sterile "borscht" included. (As an aside, please be informed about the ingredients in those kosher-for-Passover products. Avoid disease inducing ingredients like partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated oils, vanillin, and MSG--heimish companies love to add these ingredients to their products.)

But a generation or two ago, as part of that preparation, Jewish mothers would have been putting up a jar of beets and water to lacto-ferment for a couple weeks before Pesach, to be enjoyed either cool (like gazpacho) and probiotic, or hot and sour with meat and spices. That was the dish that nourished my forbears, that my grandfather's body would have intuitively recognized as nourishing and good.

It is approaching ten years since the dinner I served, and I wish that I could have made the nourishing, delicious, live-culture meal that my grandfather must have grown up on. But I am grateful for the renaissance in traditional Jewish foodways that is just beginning, and hopeful that I will be able to pass these traditions down to my own children some day.

Here is a recipe for "beet sour" adapted from Leah Leonard's Jewish Cookery, published in 1949. It can be drunk in small quantities as a digestive aid, used as a salad dressing base, or used as a borscht soup base, as it was traditionally:

BEET SOUR (Rossel) (renders one quart)
Remove tops and scrub beets thoroughly. Cut in halves or quarters and place in a glass quart-sized pickling jar that has a cover (you can buy these at your local hardware store). Add about a tablespoon of sea salt per two medium or three small beets. Fill the jar with lukewarm purified water (or the water should at least be chlorine free). Screw on lid and let stand, covered, in a warm place (64-74 degrees F) from one to four weeks to form soured beet juice for Passover borscht. Unscrew lid slightly about once per week to release pressure. A white mold bloom may grow on the surface of the rossel... this is completely normal and may simply be skimmed off. The liquid underneath will be unaffected.

Also, here is one of Leah Leonard's borscht (Rossel) recipes:
Meat Rossel Borscht (Serves 6)

1.5 lbs brisket of beef
4 cups cold water
1 onion
2 bay leaves
3 cups beet sour
Salt and pepper to taste
Lemon juice (optional)
Sugar to taste
6 egg yolks

Cook the meat, onion, and bay leaves in water at a slow boil until meat is tender when pierced with a fork. Add the other ingredients, except egg yolks, and boil 15 minutes longer. Serve hot with 1 beaten egg yolk per serving (depending on taste), for thickening, and garnish with parsley, sliced hard cooked egg and plain boiled potato.

This post is part of the Real Food Holidays Passover Recipe Blog Carnival.


  1. oooh! I'm so excited! I'm going to make this for my family's pesach celebration. I've never really fed them anything fermented, but this might be just the thing:)

    Thanks uriel, and thank you for the story about your grandpa, it's moving to think of your youthful intentions and the ways they might have been executed differently as an adult... but are nonetheless beautiful for their supposed "shortcomings." I'm sure your grandpa loved the borscht. Thank you for being such a thoughtful human.

  2. No, thank you, B-Bear. :)

    If you end up making it, let me know what your family thinks. And if you want one of Leah Leonard's recipes for using the beet sour, just let me know.

  3. Thanks for the post, I love your blog.

  4. Would cooking kill the probiotics?

  5. yes, cooking kills the probiotics, but it leaves many of the proteins and other nutrients they produced intact.

    that's why canning lacto-fermented pickles might produce a healthier food than vinegar-pickles (unless you are using homemade vinegar?).

    it is also why, for example, we find "nutritional yeast" in the nutrient/health food supplement section of the store. what is it? it's the dead, leftover dregs (lees) of wine or beer fermentation -- stuff that alcohol makers often readily discard. makes a great soup base as well. it's "dead" (certainly by the time the soup is ready) but i hear very dense in b-vitamins.

  6. Enjoyed your article about borscht and beet sour. While working on organic farm last summer I began pickling cucumbers, cabbage, sometimes other veggies. My tummy feels and works so much better! After farm work I was at Sukkot lunch at my shul in N.J., and old man described how his grandmother kept 4 barrels in her Newark basement for pickling: for cucumbers, cabbage (i.e., kraut), tomatoes, and one other thing (I forgot, perhaps beets?). Thought you might like that story -- indeed it was just a part of living! Remember -- those folks grew up before refrigeration (and industrialized food production). That's the difference.
    Cheers and b'teyavon, --David

    P. S. - In ethnic Polish groceries near my home, some of these same wonderful fermented foods can be bought cheap! I think traditional Jewish food is really just the cuisine of the surrounding local culture, adapted for dietary laws.