Cooking with FOIA: Stovetop Soviet Army borscht

Cooking with FOIA: Stovetop Soviet Army borscht

Food historian Julia Skinner offers her take on the sour staple adapted for home kitchens

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Edited by Michael Morisy

After discovering the Soviet Army’s 1948 borscht recipe in the Central Intelligence Agency archives last month, we challenged our readers to try and make the sour soup themselves. While David and Shannon Perry made a slightly scaled-back version in an outdoor firepit, food historian - and professional fermenter - Dr. Julia Skinner adapted the recipe for home kitchens:

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@muckrocknews posted the borscht recipe from the 1948 Soviet “Manual for the cook instructor of the ground troops in peacetime”, with a call for someone to make it (so of course I did). I was expecting the borscht recipe from the Soviet military to be pretty utilitarian, but it’s actually quite thoughtful, and there is a lot of attention paid to layering flavors, adding ingredients at the right time, and making an attractive presentation on the plate (or bowl). Flour is always cooked before going in the soup, for example, and herbs are briefly sautéed to develop flavor. The original recipe calls for fat, and while they don’t explicitly say what kind, my guess is that they chopped up fat scraps from beef used in other dishes (making a soup with scraps is, of course, one of the big ways humans have stretched their food supplies historically, particularly to feed a crowd). If you don’t have whole pieces of fat, you can substitute lard, which is what I did. Since I always have an excess of sauerkraut, I put that in rather than vinegar. Everything else was scaled way down to feed a solo diner rather than an army, and I used pretty traditional flavors (dill, thyme, bay, black pepper) where it asks for culinary herbs. Verdict: a really solid borscht! (Swipe to see the original recipe) #fermentfoodhistory #sovietfood #foodhistorian #borscht #russianfood

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Skinner was kind enough to provide us with the recipe, which you can read below or in her newsletter.



  • 3-4 cubes beef bouillon (depending how salty you like your soup)
  • 1 q water
  • 2 beets, washed and cubed
  • 1 tbsp lard or 2 tbsp chopped beef fat
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 tbsp sauerkraut juice or vinegar
  • 1/2 cabbage, shredded (can also use sauerkraut, if preferred)
  • 1 large russet potato, cubed
  • Bay leaf, dill, thyme, to taste (and any other herbs you want)
  • salt and pepper


  1. Heat bouillon and water to a simmer, add beets, lard, tomato paste, and sauerkraut juice. Cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes or until > beets are tender
  2. Remove beets and set aside. Add cabbage, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes.
  3. Add potato, cover, and simmer for about another 15 minutes
  4. In a separate pan, melt butter and add flour, cooking until just golden to remove the raw taste of the flour.
  5. Add herbs to the flour mixture and cook for about 30 seconds, then add the whole mixture to your soup
  6. Return soup to simmer, cover, turn off heat, and let sit for 15 minutes before serving

Thanks again to Skinner to providing the recipe. Be sure and check out Root, her food history project.

Image via Julia Skinner