Borscht & Fermenting Grated Fall Roots


When the locust trees turn golden it seems to mark the main event for the fermentation season. And while as the years go by the tasks of preserving pile on seemingly nonstop, starting with the first shoot of green in late winter, there’s something about a last hurrah of fresh food in combination with cool ambient temperatures that carry the microbial transformation more gracefully that sparks some momentum. It’s exciting that the best way to celebrate this moment is a return to the basics. Those fermentation gateway techniques like kraut-making are a life-long essential practice, rather than something to “graduate” from. It’s kraut and kimchi season.

For those who are fortunate enough to have cool space where you live can consider storing local fall vegetables root cellar style. But for most of us who lack the cool basement or maybe don’t have a basement at all, cellaring may be too much of a challenge. One of my adaptations for the warm urban living situation over the years has been to grate and ferment most of the roots. I feel like if knives magically went extinct, the grater would finally get its due. (Have you ever made a stiff pasta dough and grated it straight into boiling water for noodles?) I like to grate, salt, and ferment individual types of vegetables to live in a series of colorful jars that surround the stove. All winter long I’ll scoop out piles of the different hues onto anything from stews to sautés and roasts. And all of these serve to complement our 5 gallon buckets of sauerkraut. (Certainly whole roots ferment well in 5 gallon buckets of salt brine too.) In the winter almost everything gets cooked in a bed of kraut. For those curious if your living situation is too warm for such a thing take note: A half used bucket became an emergency weight for the greenhouse in the spring and consequently did a full round of summer completely exposed in the backyard. I opened that up recently and after maybe an inch of mush revealed a spectacular deeply rich kraut. Laziness is a pathway to discovery.

The history of borscht is varied and fascinating and counter to what it has evolved into today, doesn’t begins with beets. Those folks who investigate the past say that borscht long predates the beet altogether, who were believed to be first used for their leaves before their roots became of interest. Who knows? Regardless what’s more interesting is the question then, without beets what is borscht? Like all things, borscht needent be homogenized into a single small idea, but you may find it interesting that certain evidence gives way to the theory that for the longest time borscht was a sour soup, that is, plant material fermented in a salt brine, and then used to make a soup by adding it to a meat broth or other, and simmered with other vegetables. (Not only does modern times like to homogenize ideas but it also loves ripping fermentation from foods and replacing it with vinegar.) In the case of white borscht we’re dealing with rye or wheat flour that is fermented with water, and made into a soup as previously mentioned. Yep, it is another neat use for your leftover sourdough starter, but you can go the extra yard by fermenting your starter with spices in it.

I bring this up, not only because it’s a fantastic time to rekindle the nurturing character of warm soup, but because those aforementioned colorful jars of fermented grated roots are basically pre-borscht set ups waiting in the wing.

Because the marvelous beetroot is so marvelous it does deserve to have its own soup kingdom so for now let’s stick to the popular beet affiliation. For making your own sour beet soup, a large scoop of that shredded fermented purple on the shelf will have it ready for you when you’re ready for it. After a little saute of garlic, onion, meats if you want, add your beet and drown them in your choice of stock, maybe a little white (radish) and some orange (carrots naturally), don’t forget the kraut (yellow? or is yellow rutabagas?), and anything else you have around. Any spare brine is welcome too. But at the very least, at least in my household, don’t dare forget the dill and marjoram.