A Taste of Poland: Zurek, Sour Bread Soup


Zurek, Sour Bread Soup

My girlfriend grew up in Poland. She currently resides far from Poland—and far from me in the Bay Area—she is two months into a two year medical residency in the Midwest. I miss her, and I miss the meals we used to prepare together (okay, I was the one doing most of the cooking, but hey, you gotta have an audience).

I was lucky enough to travel with her for a week in Poland just before she moved. It was my first time in Eastern Europe, and I was happy to be shown around Poland by a Pole. Specifically, a Pole who enjoys eating as much as I do.

I loved my time in Poland. Warsaw especially captured my heart. The majority of the city was destroyed during World War II. The goal of the Germans—and the Russians after them—was not only to demolish the physical city, but also to suppress Polish morale and culture. What better way to do that than to destroy the architectural landmarks in a city that was filled with artists and intellectuals? Warsaw was painstakingly rebuilt, but the shadow of the war remains everywhere—from the new Old Town, to monuments of the heroes from the Warsaw Uprising—to the Jewish cemetery.

Don’t think, however, that as interested in Polish history as I found myself, that its food didn’t take up a big part of my imagination too.  We tried many different kinds of sausages and cured meats. I probably ate more meat that week than I had consumed in the entire three months prior to the trip. There also seemed to be a definitive national cuisine—from Warsaw—up North to the Baltic Sea—and then to Krakow in the south. Everyone I met would ask me if I had tried this dish or that dish yet. I got the feeling that perhaps the pride in some of these favorite foods was a way to unite people in a country that has seen a lot of hardship. Or maybe Poles just know how to enjoy good food.

One of my favorite—and more unusual things that I ate—was a soup called Zurek. I had been hearing about Zurek from my partner and her sister for a long time. Soups are big in Poland. Zurek is a vegetable and sausage soup with a base of fermented rye bread and water called Zakwas which gives it a tangy flavor. I tried it in the seaside city of Gdansk. It had a dried herb in it for which my partner didn’t know the English word, and told me it was probably only found in Poland. When we saw a huge bag of “majeranek” later on at a market, I decided to smuggle it home so that I could eat this delicious, addictive soup again. While I didn’t get busted bringing it through U.S. customs, I later learned that this mysterious herb is actually marjoram. Oh well, I have enough majeranek now to make plenty of  Zurek to remind me of Poland and to feel closer to my girl while she is away. I can spare some, so let me know if you want to make a batch of this hearty soup yourself.

Browning the kielbasa and onions.

Browning the kielbasa and onions.

Ingredients for making Zurek, including the Zakwas which had fermented for four days. Also, tons and tons of Polish sausage!

Ingredients for making Zurek, including the Zakwas which had fermented for four days. Also, tons and tons of Polish sausage!

Zurek, Sour Bread Soup
This is a hearty Polish soup, beloved by many Poles, that features sausage, vegetables and a tangy flavor from fermented rye bread. Be sure to begin making the Zakwas four days before you want to prepare the soup. If you can’t find kielbasa, you could substitute other types of smoked beef and pork sausage.
Recipe type: Soup
Cuisine: Polish
Serves: 4 to 6

  • ½ cup rye flour
  • 1 cup crusts from rye bread
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 cups warm water
  • 2 large onions, one halved and one coarsley chopped
  • 1 large carrot, trimmed, peeled and halved
  • 1 large parsnip, trimmed, peeled and halved
  • ½ celery root, peeled and halved
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • ¼ pound bacon, chopped
  • 1 pound beef kielbasa, sliced ½-inch thick at a slight angle
  • 1 pound pork kielbasa, sliced ½-inch thick at a slight angle
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 allspice berries
  • 1 tablespoon dried marjoram
  • 6 black peppercorns
  • ¼ cup jarred horseradish
  • ¼ cup heavy cream
  • 4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and halved (optional)
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. TO MAKE THE ZAKWAS: Place all of the ingredients in a large sanitized storage jar with a hermetically sealing top (such as you would use for preserving fruit). Leave the jar in a warm place for 4 to 5 days. Open the jar, remove any mold or green bits that might have accumulated on top. Strain, pressing on the bread to extract as much liquid as possible. You should have about 2 cups. Set aside.
  2. TO MAKE THE SOUP: Place the sliced onion halves, carrot, parsnip and celery root in a large saucepan covered with the water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer, uncovered, for 40 minutes. Strain the broth and discard the vegetables.
  3. Meanwhile, in a soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the chopped onion, bacon and both kinds of kielbasa and cook, stirring frequently, until all are lightly browned, 8-10 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 1 additional minute.
  4. Add the strained vegetable broth, the bay leaf, allspice, marjoram, peppercorns, and horseradish. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Stir in the reserved Zakwas and the cream. Raise the heat, and bring to a boil again. Remove the bay leaf, and add the hard-boiled eggs. Add the lemon juice. Taste, and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary.


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