On Schmaltz

My schmaltz, rendered at homeThe most recent selection of the Birmingham Foodie Book Club was David Sax’s Save the Deli, a love letter to delis and Jewish food in general that tours old-school delicatessens all over the country and the world and laments their decline (though the book neglects to include Birmingham’s recently closed Browdy’s and new but very authentic Max’s in its survey of good delis).

Anyway, I’ve had Jewish food on the brain for a little while. Last week, I was preparing a whole chicken for roasting, looked at the pile of fat I had trimmed off, and decided I would partake in my people’s heritage and make a batch of schmaltz.

What lard is to pork, schmaltz is to chicken: pure rendered fat. Kosher dietary laws prohibit the mixing of milk and meat, which means no butter, cream, or cheese with flesh or fowl (oddly enough, fish doesn’t count as meat, but that’s a separate issue). So where’s an observant Jew to turn for rich, fatty flavor? Schmaltz!

We didn’t keep kosher when I was growing up, so schmaltz isn’t really something I’m all that familiar with, and this batch was a first-time experiment for me. But lots of traditional Jewish recipes use it: It’s tasty spread on bread with a little salt, it’s used to saute vegetables for stews and more, and of course it’s in kishke, our version of haggis: matzo meal, schmaltz, and spices stuffed into beef intestine. (I’ve only had kishke once or twice in my life, but I remember really enjoying it.)

The good thing is, schmaltz is really easy to make, and keeps for a long time. Next time you roast a chicken, hold on to that big lump of fat you normally remove and discard before cooking. Chop it up into little pieces, and then cook over low heat until all the fat has rendered out and you’re left with little crunchy brown bits. Strain the fat and store in the fridge (a good-sized chicken yielded about a half cup for me). Then salt and eat the brown bits—they’re called gribenes in Yiddish—Jews have cracklin too!

Some cooks throw some chopped onion in when cooking the chicken fat as well. I’m gonna try this next time; a little oniony flavor sounds like it would match the schmaltz really well.

Schmaltz has a strong chickeny smell, but it tastes very clean, and wonderfully rich. So far, I’ve used it to cook veggies and to fry an egg. It adds the same kind of richness as butter. With my next batch, I plan to try something like a confit. If anyone has some spare beef intestine lying around, I’d love to take a stab at kishke, too. Lemme know.

3 thoughts on “On Schmaltz”

  1. Hi Jason! I grew up keeping kosher so schmaltz was a staple in my house. No wonder us Jews have such bad health problems – LOL! Yes, definately fry fry schmaltz up with some onions before adding to any recipe (matzo balls, kugel, matzo brie, etc) . Yum. Even though I try to spend the rest of the year cooking fat-free, I just HAVE to use schmaltz during the week of Passover. It really does make a difference to the taste. Let me know if you’d like some recipes.

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