Schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat, has been a staple in Jewish cooking for centuries. Its use in Northwestern and Eastern Europe began for reasons you’d expect: it was readily available, cheap, and unlike butter, it was kosher. While today you can find scores of other fats that meet those qualifications—from trendy grapeseed oil to olive oil—schmaltz has maintained its popularity for its deep, rich, roasted flavor. According to New York Times food columnist Melissa Clark, it’s “one of the most versatile and flavorful fats you can use.” And I can’t help but agree.
If at first you’re a little put off by the idea of chicken fat bubbling and oozing away in a hot vat, let me remind you of a few very important things. The result of this timely (though slimy) process is delicious, and it’s the same one used for those trendy duck fat fries you devoured the other day. Secondly, it’s only practical to use the fat of the animal you’re already cooking the other parts of. If you’re shredding the thighs for tacos, roasting the bones for broth, then why not use the skin as well? Throwing it away is just a waste of opportunity.
And finally, schmaltz is cool: you’ll find it everywhere from traditional delis to ramen shops, cookbooks and in the kitchens of some of the country’s finest chefs. Michael Ruhlman recently wrote an entire book on the subject. If you haven’t tried it, I suggest taking a walk on the schmaltzy side.
To really get a sense of this golden substance, I suggest making it yourself. All you need is a lot of time and a lot of chicken fat.
But if you’re intimidated by the thought of making schmaltz at home, there are plenty of experts out in the world who are making it and using it all the time. Executive Chef at New York’s renowned Mile End Deli, Josh Sobel, uses around 80 pounds of schmaltz per month — that’s about 120 pounds of chicken skin — between the two restaurants. Sobel is confident in its use, drizzling it on soups and spreading it on toast underneath hearty chicken liver. The challah for the chicken salad sandwich is even toasted in schmaltz for an extra crispy bite.
Sobel says that this is their busiest schmaltz season right now, and all their schmaltz is rendered in their own commissary kitchen in Redhook, Brooklyn. They source their chickens from Murray’s Poultry in Pennsylvania, home of all-natural, antibiotic-free happy chickens.
Even outside of Mile End, Chef Sobel is a fan of using chicken fat. ”Gotta respect the schmaltz,” he says. At home he makes it for himself. “I like to infuse different flavors into my schmaltz…Confit garlic in schmaltz is really great to drizzle over matzo ball soup.” (To make this, combine two cups of schmaltz with one bay leaf and six peeled garlic cloves. Hold the pot on medium heat until the garlic is golden brown. Remove from the heat and let the garlic steep for one hour. Strain out garlic and serve.)
And while the process is lengthy, Sobel doesn’t mind. He suggests that while you wait, you should “drink a beer and binge-watch something on Netflix.” That doesn’t sound too bad.
According to matzo mensch Jake Dell of Katz’s Deli, “Schmaltz is the best tasting thing ever and the worst thing for you.” (Though with more omega-3 fatty acids than most vegetable oils, it’s not quite the nutritional offender you might think.) But we aren’t worried too much about tallying calories when it comes to Jewish food. At Katz’s, Dell uses about 700 pounds of schmaltz per week. Dell arrives at the deli early in the morning to oversee the whole schmaltzing process. On the menu, you’ll find it in just about everything, from the chopped liver to the kishka to the matzo balls.
What makes this schmaltz the best in the city is not a secret ingredient or innovative technology. Dell says you just simply need to, “pay attention to the details: watch the schmaltz melt down, skim it properly…take the time to do it right.”
Just when you thought you had schmaltz pegged in a Jewish chicken-sized hole, it blows your mind, making appearances in international dishes like Ivan Ramen’s Chicken Paitan Ramen with white chicken broth, chicken confit, schmaltz fried onions and rye noodles. For something a little more traditional but still mind-blowing, Bowery’s Pearl & Ash also uses schmaltz. At first I was flabbergasted that they’d charge $4 for bread and butter, but when I tasted the smooth, rich, fried-chicken-scented butter, I knew it would be well worth it.
To get the true schmaltz experience, I turn you to my favorite source, The 2nd Ave Deli Cookbook.
· Four cups of chicken fat and skin, cut into ½ inch pieces or smaller
· Kosher salt
· Pinch of black pepper
· One cup of onions, sliced into rings ? inch thick
From here, the process is pretty simple. Start by rinsing the fat and skin and patting it dry. Place it into a heavy-bottomed skillet and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Cook, uncovered over low heat, stirring every now and then to keep the bits on the bottom from burning. When the fat starts to melt and get slightly brown, add the onions, and continue cooking until the onions and cracklings are golden brown and crunchy. Take off heat and let cool.
When partially cooled, strain over a bowl to remove onions and cracklings*. Then pour the schmaltz into a glass jar, cover and refrigerate. From there, you have your very own schmaltz. Use it when you’re braising or stewing; fry your eggs or potatoes in it; make a savory pastry for chicken pot pie. The New York Times Jewish Cookbook recommends you use it as a spread (a happy replacement for mayo). I would also highly suggest finding renowned food critic Mimi Sheraton’s matzo ball recipe. It includes three heaping tablespoons of schmaltz for the soft, pillowy matzo balls of your dreams.
Please, please do not throw away those leftover onions and cracklings. They’re so good (and called gribenes). Sprinkle them on mashed potatoes or even macaroni and cheese; put them in a sandwich; munch on them happily while watching Netflix. They are the golden nuggets of this process and must be enjoyed.
Ariel Kanter is an editor at Gilt City and contributing food writer to amNewYork. She lives and eats in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @RavenousRel and Instagram @ArielKanter for photos of meals and, occasionally, her cat Jasper.