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Schmaltz - The Jewish Cook's Secret Ingredient

Princeton Online blog

A post I wrote about lard reminded me about its Jewish counterpart, the Schmaltz. Here is the piece about it that I wrote for the book  Jewish Soul Food From Minsk to Marrakesh.


Schmaltz, rendered chicken or goose fat, had been the secret weapon of Jewish-Ashkenazi cooks until its fall from grace during the fat-phobia era.


Golden and homey, it used to lace chopped liver (schmaltz is key), chicken soup, matzo balls, kreplach, knishes, kishkes for cholent, and other Ashkenazi foods.


My grandmother was a career woman who avoided the kitchen whenever she could. But on Fridays she would step in, complaining profusely, and produce excellent Ashkenazi food.


She used schmaltz in everything - in chopped liver, in egg salad, in matzoh balls, and best of all - she would let us dip our challahs in schmaltz (it’s liquid at room temperature) and eat with a crunchy, spicy homemade pickle.


One Shabbat in the 70’s, we gathered as usual for lunch, but the schmaltz was gone. That was the first time in my life I’d heard the word “cholesterol”. Grandma introduced us to the substitute: chopped onions simmered in oil until caramelized. They had their magic, but they weren't schmaltz.


30 years later, fat made its comeback, and I reconnected with my grandmother’s forgotten wonder. Only then did I discover its byproduct: griebens, addictive bits of crunchy onions and chicken cracklings. How come I’d never had those before? My guess is that my grandparents ate them all by themselves.


A fun fact: the best approximation of schmaltz is cultured ghee (Indian clarified butter) from grass-fed cows. Go figure.


Note: use only organic chickens. They tend to have less fat, but fat is where the body stores unwanted chemicals and toxins.


1 lb. chicken skin and fat

One large onion cut into ribbons.


Rinse the chicken skin and fat, and pat dry. Then chop it into small 1/2 inch pieces.

Transfer to a large heavy skillet. Cook, uncovered, over low heat, stirring and breaking up the skin with a rubber spatula.


When the fat starts to melt and get slightly brown add onions and cook til onions and cracklings are golden brown and crunchy. Be careful not to burn the oil.


Let cool slightly and strain through a sieve strainer into a bowl. Let it drain slowly making sure that fat is free of onions and cracklings. Pour fat (now it’s schmaltz) into a glass jar, cover, and refrigerate.


Store onions and cracklings (now they are griebens) in a separate glass container, cover and refrigerate. Heat to crisp them up before eating. Use wherever you would use crispy fried onions.

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