Schmaltz doesn’t get the respect it deserves.
The butt of countless jokes about clogged arteries and an early grave, this rich, rendered, onion-scented chicken fat is synonymous with the heavy, plodding food of the shtetls. Even now, as medical science has given a nod to the moderate consumption of saturated animal fats, and the culinary elite has fallen hard for the likes of lard, tallow and duck fat, poor schmaltz remains the babushka-clad cousin not invited to the table.
This is a shame, because schmaltz is one the most versatile and flavorful fats you can use. Imagine the gentlest of butters infused with the taste of fried chicken, but with a fluffy lightness that melts in the mouth. When it’s properly made, schmaltz has a brawny, roasted character that comes from the bits of poultry skin that brown in the pan. (Those crunchy, golden-fried pieces of skin are called gribenes, and they are an addictive snack in their own right.)
Some cooks brown onions in the fat as it renders, which adds a layer of honeyed sweetness. Without the onion, schmaltz is subtle and nutty. Either way, it is the most divine thing you can spread on toasted challah sprinkled with sea salt, and it is excellent for roasting vegetables.
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It is also the backbone of Central and Eastern European Jewish cooking. A Yiddish word that actually refers to rendered poultry skin of all kinds (goose, chicken or duck), schmaltz is a staple ingredient for matzo ball soup, chopped liver and latkes. And it was schmaltz, not olive oil, in which Hanukkah latkes were fried. The holiday may be known as the miracle of oil, but for many Ashkenazi Jews, the celebration was fueled by poultry fat.
“Eastern European Jews were using schmaltz for latkes because that’s what they had,” said Rabbi Deborah Prinz, who studies Jewish foodways. Those communities raised geese, chickens and ducks, but not pigs, which are not kosher. (They also made butter from cow’s milk, but were prohibited by religious law from using it in a meal that also contained meat.)
Middle Eastern Jews traditionally do use oil for Hanukkah, but they don’t make latkes, added Prinz, who noted that doughnuts are the holiday custom in Israel.
Frying latkes in olive oil grew in popularity in the United States in the 1980s, when home cooks started using olive oil more often in general, for health reasons. But by then schmaltz had been in decline for decades, after Jewish immigrants in America discovered cheap hydrogenated vegetable oils.
“Crisco was the number one factor in helping Jews assimilate into American society in the 1920s and ‘30s,” said Tina Wasserman, the former food columnist of ReformJudaism.org and author of “Entrée to Judaism: A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora.”
“Putting Crisco in a pan and watching the solid white fat melt is identical to watching schmaltz melt, so it was familiar,” she said. “It was assumed to be the cleaner, modern way to cook.”
The fall of schmaltz was cemented with the cholesterol scare of the 1970s, which turned the wonderfully rich substance into a punch line.
But schmaltz has persisted, and in certain quarters you can catch the oniony whiff of a comeback.
The food writer Michael Ruhlman said he decided to write his 2013 cookbook “Schmaltz” because, after years of vilification, many people were scared to eat it. Ruhlman, the rare schmaltz proponent who is not Jewish, fell in love with it after trying it with a neighbor, who then gave him lessons in making it.
“I got tired of hearing people talk about schmaltz as a ‘heart attack on the plate,’” he said.
For Noah Bernamoff, an owner of the Mile End restaurants in New York, embracing schmaltz meant rebelling against his parents’ generation, which passed over homemade schmaltz in favor of hydrogenated margarine.
“They had a screwed-up idea of what was healthy and what wasn’t,” he said.
Now he takes pride in using schmaltz as much as possible at his restaurants. He fries with it, spreads it on challah, grinds it into chopped liver, drizzles it into soup and garnishes roasted vegetables and chicken salad sandwiches with the gribenes.
“We use a disgusting amount of schmaltz,” said Bernamoff with love. “It has a richness you don’t get with vegetable oil.”
Although rendering poultry fat is a simple task for chefs, the technique is a lost art for many home cooks. To help remedy this, Alana Newhouse, the editor of Tablet magazine, has an annual schmaltz-making party at her home in Brooklyn that she calls the “schmixer.”
Not only does she show people how to make traditional schmaltz, she also encourages guests to flavor individual batches with herbs, spices and even chilies. Everyone takes home a small Mason jar of the gorgeous fat.
All her guests love it.
“One can easily peg this to nostalgia, and maybe that’s part of it,” Newhouse said. “But it’s also real engagement.”
SCHMALTZ AND GRIBENES
Makes ½ cup schmaltz, 2 cups gribenes
¾ pound chicken skin and fat, diced (use scissors, or freeze then dice with a knife)
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
½ medium onion, peeled and cut into ¼-inch slices (optional)
1. In a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, toss chicken skin and fat with salt and 1 tablespoon water and spread out in one layer. Cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes, until fat starts to render and skin begins to turn golden at the edges.
2. Add onions and cook 45 to 60 minutes longer, tossing occasionally, until chicken skin and onions are crispy and richly browned, but not burned.
3. Strain through a sieve. Reserve the schmaltz. If you want the gribenes to be crispier, return to the skillet and cook over high heat until done to taste. Drain gribenes on a paper-towel-lined plate.
Note: If you’d rather make the schmaltz in the oven (less splatter), skip the water, spread salted skin and fat on a baking sheet, and bake at 350 degrees, stirring every 10 minutes. Add onion after 15 minutes. The timing will be about the same for both methods.
Makes 8 to 9 latkes (3 to 4 servings)
1 large russet potato (about 10 ounces), peeled and quartered lengthwise
1 shallot, peeled and halved lengthwise
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon black pepper
Schmaltz, for frying
Sour cream or Greek yogurt, for serving (optional)
Applesauce, for serving (optional)
Gribenes, for garnish (optional)
1. Using a food processor with a coarse grating disc, grate potato and shallot. Transfer mixture to a clean dish towel and squeeze out as much liquid as possible.
2. Working quickly, transfer mixture to a large bowl. Toss in flour, egg, salt, baking powder and pepper until combined.
3. Heat a medium skillet over medium-high, then pour in about ¼ inch of schmaltz. Once schmaltz is hot, drop heaping ¼ cup measures of batter into pan. Use a spatula to flatten the drops into discs. When edges of latkes are crispy, in five to seven minutes, flip them. Cook until second side is golden brown, aboutfive to seven minutes more. If latkes get too brown before they are cooked through, lower the heat. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain. Repeat with remaining batter.
4. Serve latkes topped with sour cream and applesauce, if you like. Garnish with gribenes if you have them.
SCHMALTZ-ROASTED BRUSSELS SPROUTS
Makes 4 servings
1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed, large ones halved, small ones left whole
3 tablespoons schmaltz
2 smashed garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
½ cup gribenes, roughly chopped, for garnish (optional)
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. On a large rimmed sheet pan, toss together the Brussels sprouts, schmaltz, garlic, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Spread everything out into one even layer.
2. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes, until the outer Brussels sprouts leaves are browned and crisp, tossing halfway through. Garnish with gribenes if you have them.