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#1
Posted October 9th 2008, 11:51pm
Żurek, also known as biały barszcz (white borsht), is a traditional Polish soup whose signature tang comes from a base made from rye flour and water that's been left to ferment in a warm place over several days. This base is called zakwas in Polish, and basically is just a very watery sourdough starter.

Growing up, this had always been one of my favorite Polish soups, and the changing of the seasons has inspired me to make żur from scratch. Many Polish delis will sell either ready-made zakwas in bottles (sometimes labeled as "biały barszcz") or powdered biały barszcz/żurek, which you can use as a base instead of going through the 3-6 days required to make homemade zakwas. You'll still get a good product, but you won't experience the same sense of satisfaction. Fermenting is fun!

There is some controversy over what exactly the difference, if any, between żurek and biały barszcz is. I, and many others, use the terms interchangeably, although my family more commonly used the term żur or żurek (diminutive of " żur.") My father claims that żurek is always made on rye flour, while biały barszcz is made on whole wheat flour. The Polish Wikipedia page on the soup agrees that a segment of the Polish population uses this naming convention, but others say that żurek is a soured Lenten/Easter soup that's served with potatoes and eggs, while biały barszcz is sour soup that's cooked with bacon and sausage. For all practical purposes, these two names are interchangeable, and there are countless variations on the soured rye base. Also, for those linguists in the house, it appears that the name żur comes from the same root as the German word sauer.

To make the zakwas, we need the following:

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1/2 cup oat flakes
1 cup rye flour
2 garlic cloves, sliced thinly

Rye flour by itself is perhaps more commonly used, but I like the combination of rye and oats. You can also use whole wheat flour, and rye or wheat bran, according to Polish sources I've consulted.

Mix all of the above ingredients into a jar or stoneware crock with about 3 or 4 cups water that has been boiled and cooled (to evaporate the chlorine) to room temperature or slightly warmer. At this point, the crust of two slices of rye bread is customarily added to help the fermentation along. I added a tablespoon of sourdough starter, instead. Both ways will work, and the former is the way my mother and Polish mothers everywhere used to make it. Place your jar in a warm, draft-free location. You're looking for a temp of 70-80F ideally.

In about 24-36 hours, you should notice some bubbling in your starter, as well as a sweet-sour smell. If you know the scent of lactic bacteria (as in naturally fermented sauerkraut or pickles) that's what you're looking for. For this reason, it may be worthwhile to ferment this in the basement, near the furnace, so the smell is isolated. Personally, I love the smell so I just leave it in the kitchen. The zakwas should be ready to use in 3-6 days, depending on what level of sourness you desire. I used mine after 4 and felt it could have gone another day or two. My girlfriend, however, thought it was more than sour enough at this point. Use your discretion, and taste it from day to day. If you're using the crust of rye bread, remove after two or three days to prevent mold formation.

This is what your jar will look like after four days:

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A little closer:
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Now that we have the zakwas ready, we can continue with the żurek:

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There are a lot of ways to make this soup, and I'm going the variation known as żurek na białej kiełbasie (Polish sour soup with white sausage.)

We need:

1 pound white Polish sausage (my favorite is from Dunajec, on Archer just a door or two down from Gilmart. If you're in the neighborhood and have never stopped into Dunajec, you owe it to yourself. Other than having my family's preferred Polish sausages, it has my favorite, most-ridiculous store sign in the city: an anthropomorphic pig gleefully observing his viscera leave his body as sausages.)

hard-boiled eggs
potatoes
onion
sour cream
marjoram
salt
pepper

Fry one onion in fat of your choice (you can definitely use bacon here, if you want). I used a Polish prepared lard that was seasoned with onions and allspice berries:

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Prick the white sausage all over with a knife or fork. When the onions are translucent, add sausage and water to cover (about 3 cups):

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Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, and cook for 30-40 minutes over low heat. In another pot, hard boil your eggs, and boil up some peeled potatoes that have been cut into quarters or diced into cubes.

Remove the sausage, cut into 1/2 - 1 inch slices. Return to pot. Add the zakwas into the pot, pouring it through a strainer. If you don't use oats, then you don't have to bother straining it. You want the rye flour in the soup to help thicken it a little. Add about one teaspoon marjoram, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for about 5-10 minutes, then add 1/2 cup sour cream into which 1 tablespoon of flour has been beaten in. You should now have something that looks like this:

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Bring to boil and cook until the raw flour flavor has cooked out, about 5-10 minutes. To serve, arrange boiled potatoes and hard-boiled egg halves in a bowl. Ladle the żurek over, making sure you get some sausage pieces in the bowl.

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Variations:

Oh boy, where to start? My mother normally made this as above, but without eggs and without sour cream. Instead of white Polish sausage, you can make this on a base of smoked meat. Smoked Polish sausage will work as will the smoked ribs you often find at Polish delis (my mother, once again, made it with the latter). I used water as my liquid, but some people use vegetable stock (heavy in root vegetables like carrots, parsnips, and celery root), while others use a light beef stock, and still others use a ham stock. Some people don't add onions to the broth. Some add dill. Others use soured milk instead of sour cream. Some also add shredded carrots to the broth. Dried mushrooms (porcini) are also a very common addition, as is a bay leaf. Two or three allspice berries into the broth is fairly typical as well. Also, a teaspoon or two of horseradish (żurek made for Easter typically has horseradish.)

For me, threr's basically two main divisions: those made with smoked meats, and those made without. If you prefer to make the recipe on smoked meats, follow the same recipe as above, substituting either Polish deli smoked ribs or smoked Polish sausage for the white sausage, and I encourage you using bacon as your base fat if you're going this route.
Last edited by Binko on October 12th 2008, 5:09pm, edited 2 times in total.
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#2
Posted October 10th 2008, 12:36am
Excellent walkthrough, cultural context, and images. I'd love to make this. Come to think of it, I'd rather have you come over and make it.

Anyplace out in the restaurant world that serves something the way you like it, if I don't have prep / kidnapping time?
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#3
Posted October 10th 2008, 1:08am
Santander wrote:Excellent walkthrough, cultural context, and images. I'd love to make this. Come to think of it, I'd rather have you come over and make it.

Anyplace out in the restaurant world that serves something the way you like it, if I don't have prep / kidnapping time?


Around here, I like Szalas's zurek (they make it, if I recall correctly, as the recipe above, with bacon as the fat). To be honest, though, I don't really go to Polish restaurants very often, since I could always just go to Mom's for that.

Szalas Restaurant
5214 S Archer Ave
Chicago, IL 60632
(773) 582-0300

I should say, do not be afraid to use the packets of barszcz bialy or zurek if you don't feel like fermenting for the better part of a week. You might also find a bottle of something like this at your local Polish deli. This zakwas is available at Bobak's, but labeled simply as "bialy barszcz."

Also, I should add that Polish red borscht is often made with pickled beets that undergo the same type of fermentation process as the white borscht described above. Instead of rye flour, you use beets cut into thin slices, mix them with water, garlic, and a couple rye bread crusts, and let them sit for about a week in a warm place. Maybe sometime in the winter I'll find the time to do the pickled beet borscht recipe.
Last edited by Binko on October 10th 2008, 11:15am, edited 1 time in total.
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#4
Posted October 10th 2008, 7:53am
Great, great post, Binko!

Thank you!
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#5
Posted October 10th 2008, 8:01am
Great work Binko. Looks hearty and delicious.
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#6
Posted October 10th 2008, 8:14am
Looks good. Darn good.
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#7
Posted October 10th 2008, 9:02am
Binko wrote:Żurek, also known as biały barszczt (white borsht), is a traditional Polish soup whose signature tang comes from a base made from rye flour and water that's been left to ferment in a warm place over several days.

Binko,

Though I've only had Zurek a few places, Podhalanka being my favorite to date, there is something about the hearty sour soup that speaks to me. I can't wait to make Zurek using your wonderfully detailed tutorial, though in the meantime Szalas is calling my name.

Enjoy,
Gary
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#8
Posted October 10th 2008, 11:14am
Glad everyone is enjoying the recipe! Meanwhile, I just realized I didn't offer a pronunciation guide. Roughly, Żurek is pronounced "ZHOO-rek," zakwas is "ZAH-kvahss," and biały barszcz is "BYAH-wih BARSHCH (or BARSCHT is easier.)"
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#9
Posted October 10th 2008, 11:41am
Binko wrote:Glad everyone is enjoying the recipe! Meanwhile, I just realized I didn't offer a pronunciation guide. Roughly, Żurek is pronounced "ZHOO-rek," zakwas is "ZAH-kvahss," and biały barszcz is "BYAH-wih BARSHCH (or BARSCHT is easier.)"

Bless you, Binko - I'm forever getting blank looks from my friend of Polish descent when I talk about things I've read on the forum. My American interpretation of the spellings is obviously ridiculous.
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#10
Posted October 10th 2008, 11:56am
This looks great. I can't wait to try it myself!
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#11
Posted October 10th 2008, 2:39pm
Perfect! That is the soup! The photos with the egg and sausage are exactly what it should be. Thanks for this post, Binko.

You said: "At this point, the crust of two slices of rye bread is customarily added to help the fermentation along. I added a tablespoon of sourdough starter, instead."

What do you use for sourdough starter? Is this something you can buy? And if so could anyone suggest a brand or source preferably in the north suburbs or anywhere?

You say: "Many Polish delis will sell either ready-made zakwas in bottles (sometimes labeled as "biały barszcz")"

Here in the NW suburbs Niles Morton Grove area, I have seen the packages of powdered zakwas which seem to be readily available. But I have never seen zakwas in bottles. Can anyone suggest where to find the bottled zakwas, for us northsiders? Is it something that is available all year round or is it a seasonal Easter thing?

wonderful post and pictures. Thank you! --Joy
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#12
Posted October 10th 2008, 7:29pm
Terrific post! I am tempted to try to make Żurek because I too love that sour taste. Way north in Cross Village, Michigan, the wacky but excellent Legs Inn makes delicious Żurek. I've had Podhalanka's, but it isn't as good. Thanks for the inspiration.
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#13
Posted October 10th 2008, 8:07pm
HI,

Most Polish soups don't have the egg, meat and potatoes visible. They are often opaque pools with the ingredients found as you dig in with your spoon. Is this presentation for our benefit or typical for your family?

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Do you also make Polish Pickle soup? I have a quart of pickle brine from pickles that I am keeping for this purpose. Do you have a favored method?

Your post is very inspiring. Thank you for taking your time to present this to us.

Regards,
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Cathy2

"You'll be remembered long after you're dead if you make good gravy, mashed potatoes and biscuits." -- Nathalie Dupree
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#14
Posted October 10th 2008, 11:48pm
Cathy2 wrote:HI,

Most Polish soups don't have the egg, meat and potatoes visible. They are often opaque pools with the ingredients found as you dig in with your spoon. Is this presentation for our benefit or typical for your family?


This is typical for our family, as we (and many Polish families I know) use rather shallow soup bowls. The sausage and potatoes would certainly be visible if you came over and had mom's zurek--actually even moreso than in the picture. Mom quartered her potatoes, while I cut them into cubes. We never used eggs in ours, but I like them, so I did arrange the eggs so their yolks would look a little sexier.

Do you also make Polish Pickle soup? I have a quart of pickle brine from pickles that I am keeping for this purpose. Do you have a favored method?


Absolutely. I love Polish pickle soup. Basically, I just take a light stock, vegetable or chicken (although a smoked meat stock will work, too), mix it with shredded pickles (naturally fermented pickles, not vinegar pickles), shredded carrots, cubed potatoes, pickle brine to taste. Cook for a little bit, thicken with sour cream beaten with flour, and that's about it. Salt, pepper, allspice, and bay leaf as seasonings. Oh, and you can start it by frying a small onion or leek in butter. I don't always use onion/leek in my pickle soup. Garnish with generous amounts of dill.


Your post is very inspiring. Thank you for taking your time to present this to us.


Glad you enjoyed it. I saw Gary's post from awhile back about zurek, with him initially thinking it was based on sauerkraut juice (which, actually, is not really far off. Same idea: natural fermentation that results in lactic acid), so I thought it was be interesting to share how this mysterious soup is made. :)
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#15
Posted October 11th 2008, 12:08am
HI,

Thank you for unraveling mysteries one didn't even know where to begin to ask.

My pickles are naturally fermented. I can't wait to make the Pickle Soup. There are not too many places that serve it.

Again, thank you!

Regards,
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Cathy2

"You'll be remembered long after you're dead if you make good gravy, mashed potatoes and biscuits." -- Nathalie Dupree
Facebook, Twitter, Greater Midwest Foodways, Road Food 2012: Podcast
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#16
Posted October 11th 2008, 12:18am
Joy wrote:You said: "At this point, the crust of two slices of rye bread is customarily added to help the fermentation along. I added a tablespoon of sourdough starter, instead."

What do you use for sourdough starter? Is this something you can buy? And if so could anyone suggest a brand or source preferably in the north suburbs or anywhere?


I have two sourdough starters in my fridge: one a typical San Francisco starter obtained by mail order, and another one that was passed down to me by a local chef. I've never seen anyone use sourdough starter for zurek--this is just something I assumed would work, since zakwas is just a very watery sourdough. (In fact, sourdough starter is called zakwas na chleb, or "zakwas for bread.") Some people reserve leftover zakwas to start their next batch, just like one would for sourdough. My mother's Polish cookbook only calls for rye flour and water for the zakwas, no rye bread crusts, so you should be able to get it going with just rye flour and water. I'm not positive as to the role of the crust, but somehow it's supposed to help and speed the fermentation along. I'm not exactly sure how or why, but you will find the addition of rye crust or whole slices of rye bread common in Eastern European pickling recipes.

Apparently, they sell a special flour for zurek that looks like this. I've never seen it before, but it looks to me like a combination of rye and oats. Here's another picture of the flour in its packaging.

The instructions translate as:

"Ready 1 liter water, 20 dekagrams flour, clove garlic. Pour the flour into a stone pot or glass jar, pour over lukewarm, boiled water (~50C). Mix, add minced garlic, cover with cheesecloth, and leave in warm place for 4-5 days. When zur is pickled/fermented it has a sour taste and pleasant smell. etc."

So those instructions, for instance, don't use any bread crusts at all. Rye flour is pretty easy to spontaneously ferment, so I would give it a shot.

You say: "Many Polish delis will sell either ready-made zakwas in bottles (sometimes labeled as "biały barszcz")"

Here in the NW suburbs Niles Morton Grove area, I have seen the packages of powdered zakwas which seem to be readily available. But I have never seen zakwas in bottles. Can anyone suggest where to find the bottled zakwas, for us northsiders? Is it something that is available all year round or is it a seasonal Easter thing?


The one I've seen is Frubex brand, distributed by Lowell, and, like I said, I found it at Bobak's, so unfortunately, I can't help with the northside. I believe I've seen it in the refrigerated section, so you may want to check there.
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#17
Posted October 11th 2008, 12:25am
Cathy2 wrote:My pickles are naturally fermented. I can't wait to make the Pickle Soup. There are not too many places that serve it.


I'll try to post an exact recipe sometime in the fall/winter. I'll see how my mom does it, and I'll see what her old Polish cookbook suggests. I'm pretty sure she makes it fairly simply, with just a light broth, pickles shredded on a box grater, pickle juice, and potatoes. I don't even think she adds sour cream. It's one of those recipes you can definitely build. Just start with the broth and shredded pickles; taste; add pickle brine until you achieve your desired sourness. From there, you can decide whether you want sour cream or not. Whether you want shredded carrots, how thick you want to make it, etc.
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#18
Posted October 13th 2008, 12:24am
Coincidentally, a Polish chef just gave me a simplified recipe for white borscht. He recommended Cracovia brand zur concentrate.
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LAZ
Please see this thread on LTHForum's new Terms of Service
for why my photos and other portions of my posts have been removed
Index to LTHForum Recipes, 2004-2008
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#19
Posted October 13th 2008, 3:15pm
LAZ wrote:Coincidentally, a Polish chef just gave me a simplified recipe for white borscht. He recommended Cracovia brand zur concentrate.


Ah, yes! I forgot Cracovia makes zakwas. It looks like this. You can use that or make your own, doesn't really make much of a difference in the final taste.
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#20
Posted October 13th 2008, 5:08pm
Thanks for the information, Binko (and LAZ)! This will be the plan for our next cold weekend. --Joy
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#21
Posted October 14th 2008, 10:34am
Great post Binko, it's making me hungry already. My Grandmother from Cracow used to make this soup using white sausage. It's always been one of my favorites.
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#22
Posted October 17th 2008, 11:17pm
We always had white borscht with day-after Wigilia at Christmas and it was only slightly similar to this recipe. My Polish Grandma always made it the following way:

Reserve potato water from the potato's you are using to make Pierogi's

Reserve sausage water from the sausage you are making for the post-Wigilia meat-ening

Mix potato water and sausage water in a large pot.

Separately mix sour cream and flour to a paste-like consistency and add to the pot

Add a dash of vinegar and a pinch of salt

Simple and delicious. Sounds like the sour cream and vinegar are meant to replace the fermented rye flour. We never had anything in ours, either, it was just broth. Perhaps a holdover fron my Grandma's depression-era upbringing?
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#23
Posted October 18th 2008, 1:11am
cybermud wrote: Sounds like the sour cream and vinegar are meant to replace the fermented rye flour.


I would guess so. I've seen Polish Easter soup recipes where, instead of the fermented rye sour, they substitute vinegar, lemon juice, or even pickle juice. I like the gentle, lactic sourness of zurek, so I'm not a fan of vinegar as a substitute, but it will certainly work in a pinch. I seem to recall my mother occasionally spiking her zurek with vinegar when it wasn't tart enough for her tastes.
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#24
Posted October 18th 2008, 1:40pm
In Chicago, where scores of Polish delis stock the bottled zur/zakwas, there's probably no reason to substitute vinegar.
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LAZ
Please see this thread on LTHForum's new Terms of Service
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Index to LTHForum Recipes, 2004-2008
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#25
Posted November 13th 2008, 9:33am
Binko wrote:Ah, yes! I forgot Cracovia makes zakwas. It looks like this. You can use that or make your own, doesn't really make much of a difference in the final taste.


One of life's little mysteries solved - I knew this looked familiar; I'd seen it at Marketplace on Oakton and wondered what it was, and the other day, there it was, smiling down at me among the jams and jellies. I'd always assumed because of the placement, that it was some kind of vanilla paste - good thing I never tried to spread it on toast! :D
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