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Beet soup, whether hot or cold, has been served for centuries in central and eastern European regions. While many beet soup recipes call for other vegetables, such as cabbage, carrot, tomato, or even apple, many people prefer the uncompromised purity of a soup made primarily from fresh beets and topped with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt. Beetroot soup, or borscht, a much-loved culinary tradition among Slavs, Poles, and Ashkenazi Jews, has become popularized in many other parts of the world.
The simplest beetroot soup is made by simmering chopped beets together with onion and garlic until the beets have softened. The vegetables are pureed and poured into a robust dish. A thinner, more consommé–like presentation can be achieved by letting the vegetables cook until they have fallen apart, after which the pieces are strained out. These soups offer their flavors equally well when served hot or cold.
Among the many variations of beet soup are those that contain other root vegetables. Some regional differences include soups that mellow the rich, ruby-red color of pure beet with white cabbage. Another common partner is potato. Turnips, rutabaga, or other starchy root vegetables add their own unique flavors and textural variations.
While most beet soups contain only vegetables, some cooks include meat. Cubed beef or pork can be added to the beet soup, making a stew-like, rustic main dish. In some regions, chicken is used. In Poland and nearby areas, bacon is frequently added as a garnish or cooked into the body of the soup. Another source of protein is found in chopped egg, which is sprinkled into the soup bowl by each diner.
In keeping with tradition, some cooks insist that a true beet soup must be edged with a sharp, tart high note. The easiest way to achieve this sour taste is by dressing the soup with lemon or vinegar. Purists, however, let the soup sit for up to a week gain a naturally sour layer.
Whether pureed or served as a stew, beet soup is at its best when accompanied by hearty bread. Russian black bread, heavy rye, or wheat bread containing sprouted grains and seeds are perfect for mopping up every last drop. Sourdough bread echoes and deepens the flavor of a soured beet soup. Alternatively, some regional variations prepare and serve the soup with dumplings or small boiled potatoes.