Schmaltz. You may not have ever heard of it before – I know I hadn’t. But it turns out, you want to know what schmaltz is, because it is amazing! I learned to appreciate schmaltz thanks to Michael Ruhlman’s Single, The Book of Schmaltz, available on the iPad in the iTunes store.
What is schmaltz? Schmaltz is rendered chicken fat, cooked with onion for flavor, that is used in many traditional Jewish dishes. For many centuries, cooking with animal fats was the norm, such as butter from cows and lard from pigs. Since the Jewish religion forbids eating anything porcine, they relied on poultry fat (schmaltz) for their cooking, and this characterizes the traditional Jewish cuisine. It isn’t limited to traditional Jewish dishes though – there are many amazing things you can do with schmaltz.
There is also a bonus to making schmaltz! Not only do you get schmaltz (the fat), but you are also left with the browned skin and onions, called gribenes – a delicious byproduct that you can use in a number of ways.
Mike is all about utilization cooking; when he breaks down a chicken to make chicken breasts for one meal, the legs for another, the bones are saved for making stock, and the fat & skin go in to the freezer (in a plastic container that he adds to when he has more) to make schmaltz. There is no waste when cooking food.
Don’t want to save up the skin & fat? Ask your butcher or the farmer who you get your chickens from if they will save it for you. Ruhlman also suggests that you can use the skin from packaged chicken thighs, and then use the skinless thighs for other things.
Random things I learned while we made this? The process of making schmaltz is a wet rendering process – you add water when you do it. According to some of the sources I’ve read since, wet rendering needs less monitoring and is more delicate on the fat.
If you want to learn more about making schmaltz and the many uses for it, I highly recommend Ruhlman’s book. (Actually, I highly recommend anything by Ruhlman.) He describes the steps in making schmaltz, and then has two dozen recipes that explore the various uses of schmaltz, including traditional recipes such as Classic Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls, Egg and Gribenes Spread, Potato Kugel, Knish, Kreplach, and contemporary recipes such as Vichyssoise with Gribenes and Chives (hmm… I’m thinking that some Cauliflower Leek soup might be enhanced with some gribenes too!), Four-Star Matzo Ball Soup, Schmaltz-roasted Potatoes with Onion and Rosemary (yes, please!), Chicken with Schmaltz Dumplings, Chicken Rillettes, and even Oatmeal Cookies with Dried Cherries.
Ruhlman’s goal (and ours too) is to help you create your own variations of schmaltz so that you can add it to your arsenal of cooking tools.
UPDATE: Be sure to visit Mike’s blog for the Cook’s Notes on Schmaltz.
- 1 pound chicken skin and fat (from about two chickens), finely chopped
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- ½ C. water or as needed
- Chop the skin and fat well, which is easiest when it is frozen or partially frozen. The finer the chop, the more efficiently it will render.
- Put the chicken skin in a medium saucepan (nonstick, if you have one) with just enough water to cover. On high heat, bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low, and cook slowly to render fat. Stir occasionally. This will take anywhere from 90 minutes to several hours, depending on how much skin and fat you have and the heat of your burner. Stir to make sure it does not stick or burn.
- Do not let the fat get too hot and turn brown; you want a light, clear, clean schmaltz. Once the water and the moisture in the fat has cooked off, the fat temperature can rise above 212 F / 100 C and the browning can begin.
- When the chicken skin is golden brown and plenty of the fat has been rendered, add the chopped onions. Continue to cook until the skin and onions are well browned. Stir more frequently, as the protein will REALLY want to stick to the pot (some of that is unavoidable).
- Be careful not to overcook the fat; it should remain clear and yellow, not brown with an overly roasted flavor.
- The schmaltz is done when the fat is clear but not browned, the onion is cooked through and melted, and the chicken skin is dark golden brown. The gribenes should be crispy-chewy.
- Strain the schmaltz from the skin and onions through a fine mesh strainer. If you want very clear fat, line the strainer with a cheesecloth (or strain a second time as we did). Allow it to cool and then transfer to a container, cover, and store in the refrigerator for up to a week. It is volatile and will diminish in flavor if left too long in the fridge; freeze any that you will not be using in a day or two.
- To freeze: store in a container with plastic wrap pressed down on to the surface, cover with a lid or a second layer of plastic wrap, and then wrap in foil if you plan to store it for a long time; this will prevent other flavors from infiltrating the schmaltz, and the foil will keep light from damaging it. Another option is to freeze in 1½ cup mason jars with rubber seals.
- Save the gribenes (the onions and skin) as well. Dry excess fat on a paper towl and store covered in the fridge for up to a week; these bits are great as a snack, on salad, on scrambled eggs, et cetera. You can also freeze the gribenes if you would like.
Recipe adapted from The Book of Schmaltz: A Love Song to a Forgotten Fat by Chef Michael Ruhlman.