Theodore Bikel’s 1998 album “A Taste of Passover” gets a little peculiar on the ninth track. Rather than music, it features Yiddishist Chasia Segal teaching a live audience how to prepare kneydlakh, or matzo balls. After combining matzo meal, eggs, salt and chicken broth, she announces, “And now I have a problem!” In an ideal world the next ingredient would be schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat, but Segal observes that “We’re not supposed to have any more schmaltz” and uses vegetable oil instead.
How did this come to be? In 1978 the USDA began telling Americans to consume less saturated fat. By the ’90s the conventional wisdom was that animal-derived fats, which tend to me more saturated, were dangerous, and plant-derived fats were somewhat less so. Hydrogenated vegetable oils and margarine, originally introduced as cheap substitutes for butter and animal fats like lard, came to be preferred not only for their price but for the damage they would supposedly spare consumers’ arteries. (Kashrut-observant Jews were among the first to jump on the bandwagon. Crisco targeted the Jewish market with community-specific ads as early as 1913.) Butter became an immoral condiment, and conscientious eaters began to cut the fat off their steaks and peel away the skin from chicken breasts.
Common wisdom has changed, though. The process of hydrogenation that solidifies vegetable fats to make products like margarine has proven to be the latest nutritional villain: it produces trans fatty acids, which are deemed so harmful that the FDA refuses to prescribe a recommended daily allowance. At the same time, the use of fat in cooking appears to be getting a kind of reprieve from criticism as the scientific community investigates the role of refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour in the rising rates of obesity and heart disease around the world. Celebrity chefs on the Food Network sling butter like it’s going out of style — funny, as it’s back in style — and every study seems to conclude that olive oil makes our hearts healthier, not sicker.
What, then, of schmaltz? This staple of traditional Ashkenazic cooking, which current wisdom holds should be somewhat healthier than butter — it contains only 31% saturated fat, to butter’s 66% — is all but extinct in Jewish kitchens today. It need not be so. Schmaltz can be used in place of any liquid oil, and adds a distinctive and irreplaceable richness and aroma to many dishes: the vegetable oil in your matzo ball and potato kugel recipes was originally schmaltz, and they don’t taste the same without it. It makes a wonderful “secret ingredient” for sautéing onions at the beginning of a stew, and in the old days was schmeared on rye bread for deli sandwiches. The gribenes (cracklings) that are a byproduct of schmaltz production are another powerhouse of concentrated chicken flavor, and can be added to egg salads and sandwiches, or eaten as a snack or first course. In retrospect, I wish I’d brought some to this year’s Superbowl party.
As strange as it may sound, schmaltz is in many ways a good fit for the times. A weak economy should encourage us all to use resources as completely as possible, so why throw away that chicken skin? Using it promotes sustainable food. If you’re already eating chicken, why not do your palate, your wallet and the environment a favor by going whole hen?
How To Render Schmaltz (and Make Gribenes)
Raw chicken skin
Any pieces of fat salvaged from raw chicken
1) Cut the skin into thin strips and the fat into small pieces.
2) Place the skin and fat in a cold skillet large enough to hold all the skin in one layer. Place over low heat and let sit until the ingredients emit a low hissing sound and clear fat begins to seep into the pan. Continue, shaking the pan from time to time, until the crackling-hissing sound has largely ceased, there are no visible pieces of fat left, and the skin is uniformly crispy and brown. (If the skin was particularly lean and just isn’t releasing enough fat to fry itself, you can add a little vegetable oil.)
3) Carefully pour the contents of the pan through a piece of cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Store the schmaltz in a covered jar in the refrigerator. (Like olive oil, schmaltz is liquid at room temperature but will solidify when refrigerated.) Store the separated gribenes in a tightly covered container, and refrigerate unless you plan to use them within a day.
Lawrence Szenes-Strauss received his investiture as a hazzan in 2009 from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He is currently pursuing a dual M.A. in education and Judaic studies at New York University.