Much of my childhood was spent with my grandparents in Mariupol, a port city located on the coast of the Azov Sea at the mouth of Ukraine’s Kalmius River. My grandfather would frequently fish on the river, where wild sorrel grows abundantly along the banks. He would gather large bunches of the tart leafy green to bring home to my grandmother, who used it to make green borsch, or, as it’s known in Ukrainian, shchaveloviy borsch. In the spring and summer, when nettles, dill, and spring onions grew in their garden, she’d add those to the pot as well. I love green borsch because it reminds me of my grandparents and the smell of sorrel that perfumed their apartment.
What Is Borsch?
Borsch—a sour and hearty soup that’s loved especially throughout Eastern Europe—is the national dish of Ukraine and a staple in every Ukrainian household. There are four main categories of borsch in Ukraine: red, green, white, and cold (kholodnyk). Borsch is eaten at weddings and funerals, can be served hot or cold, and can be as thick as a stew or thin as a consommé. It can also be almost any color, and the correct hue of borsch is often a hotly contested topic.
There are numerous regional varieties of borsch, and each reflects the local ingredients and culinary practices of each locale. In southern Ukraine, tomatoes and red bell peppers play an important role. In eastern Ukraine, versions starring eggplant and fish are popular. And in Poltava, a city in central Ukraine, dried fruit like pears are added for sweetness. Generally speaking, the main five ingredients in borsch are beets, carrot, onion, potato, and cabbage, though in my opinion the defining characteristic of the soup is that it always has a souring agent and a medley of sweet ingredients.
The Building Blocks of Green Borsch
Green borsch is the second most popular kind of borsch in Ukraine after beet. This is mainly due to its star ingredient, sorrel (or shchavel in Ukrainian), which has a tart, lemony taste that comes from oxalic acid in the leaves. Unlike beetroot, which was likely introduced from the Mediterranean sometime in the 16th century and is commonly used to make red borsch, sorrel has been growing wild in Ukraine for thousands of years. Botanically, sorrel is a perennial belonging to the buckwheat family. Every spring, it grows all over the meadows of Ukraine, hence the soup’s other name: spring borsch.
There are many versions of the soup that vary depending on where you are and who is cooking. During Lent, the broth is traditionally made with mushrooms or fish, though this depends on which region of Ukraine you’re in. Today, the majority of green borsch recipes use chicken or pork broth. My version—as was my grandmother’s—is made with pork, which lends the broth a rich savoriness that balances the freshness of the greens.
In addition to sorrel, the ingredients that appear consistently across the many versions of green borsch are nettles, potatoes, beet greens, and hard boiled eggs. My recipe celebrates the abundance of spring by combining spring onions, green garlic, new potatoes, and sorrel. The tartness of the sorrel is balanced by the sweetness of the carrots, the richness of the egg yolks, and the starchiness of the potatoes. A dollop of crème fraiche also helps to neutralize the sorrel’s oxalic acid.
There are four main building blocks to making a great green borsch. The first is simmering the pork bones to extract as much flavor as possible for the broth, which serves as the base for the borsch. The second is zasmazhka, a Ukrainian technique similar to sofrito where the alliums and carrots are sautéed until lightly browned to bring an element of sweetness to the soup. Traditionally, zasmazhka is made with grated carrots, but here, I opt for sliced carrots to provide additional texture and a burst of color.
Simmering the greens helps to round out the sharp flavors of green garlic and spring onion, and adding the egg mixture creates a beautiful marbled effect with the resulting egg threads. Eggs and sorrel are a classic Ukrainian pairing, and here, the beaten eggs bring additional body and heartiness. Letting the borsch rest adds depth and complexity to the broth, while also enhancing the flavor of the sorrel. Last but not least, a bowl of green borsch isn’t complete without a topping of chopped boiled eggs and a touch of crème fraîche for tartness and creaminess.
This green borsch is grounded in tradition, but also versatile enough for home cooks to adapt with substitutions as needed. In the U.S., sorrel tends to be sold as an herb rather than a leafy green, and is easier to find at farmers markets than most grocers. If you are having a hard time getting a large quantity of sorrel, you can substitute half of the sorrel with spinach and adjust the tartness of the soup with vinegar or lemon juice as needed. The other greens can be substituted with pea shoots, parsley, spinach, green onion, wild garlic, ramps, and goosefoots. Since the flavor of this dish relies so much on the freshness and seasonality of the produce used, it’s best to source your ingredients from a local farmers market in the spring.
Green borsch is one of the first recipes I ever learned how to make, and preparing the dish is immensely comforting, especially now, as the war in Ukraine continues. Every week during the spring and summer, I make a pot of green borsch for lunch. This dish allows me to incorporate the green bounty of the seasons but most importantly it connects me to a time, place, and people that no longer exist, bringing and keeping the memory of my family close to me. The aroma of the sorrel and pork broth reminds me of my childhood in Mariupol. One memory stands out in my mind: My grandfather is sitting at the kitchen table with his plate of chopped boiled eggs, giddily waiting for his bowl of borsch like a child anticipating an ice cream sundae. My grandfather wasn’t one to show much emotion, but he couldn’t help but smile, satisfied, every time he ate green borsch. And each time I look up from my own bowl of borsch, I expect to see his smile meet mine in return.
For the Pork Broth: In a 6-quart enameled Dutch oven, add the pork ribs, carrot, onion, peppercorns, bay leaves, and salt. Cover with no more than 2 quarts (8 cups) water and bring to boil over medium-high heat. Lower heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, uncovered, until ribs are fork-tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Skim off any impurities that rise to the surface. Discard the carrot and onion.
For the Borsch: Add potatoes to the pork broth. If there isn’t enough broth to just cover the solids, add enough water just to cover and return to a simmer. Cook until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, in an 8-inch skillet, heat oil over medium heat, add the sliced white part of spring onion along with the sliced carrots and cook, stirring, until softened and just lightly browned, about 10 minutes.
When the potatoes are tender, add the sautéed onions and carrots, the sliced green parts of the green onion, green garlic, beet greens, and salt. Simmer until vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes, adjusting the amount of water as needed (see note).
Slowly pour the beaten eggs into the pot in a thin steam, making sure to drizzle them all around as you pour, then gently stir; egg drop soup–like curds should form.
Add sorrel and dill to the pot and cook until the sorrel is fully wilted, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let borsch rest uncovered until room temperature before serving, about 1 hour. Ladle the cooled borsch into bowls and top with chopped boiled eggs and dollops of crème fraîche. Serve with sourdough bread.
6-quart enameled cast iron Dutch oven, stainless steel skimmer
The flavor of your borsch will ultimately depend on the quality of your fresh produce, and we recommend purchasing your ingredients at the farmers market if you can.
If you can’t find fresh sorrel even after having made friends with local urban farmers, jarred sorrel that can be purchased online or at an Eastern European grocer can be used. If you are having a hard time getting a large quantity of sorrel, you can substitute half of the sorrel with spinach and adjust the tartness of the soup with vinegar or lemon juice as needed.
If you are having a hard time finding green garlic you can substitute with two garlic cloves, you can microplane them directly into the pot.
If you can’t find beet greens, Swiss chard can be substituted.
After adding the potatoes, you might need to adjust the amount of water depending on how much water evaporates during the broth making process. The amount of water may vary from 1/2 to 1 1/2 cups (120ml to 360ml). Make sure to add 1/4 cup (60ml) at a time so as to not thin out the borsch too much.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The soup can be refrigerated for up to 5 days and frozen for up to 3 months.
The broth can be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge for up to a week in the fridge and 3 months in the freezer.