Like so many Yiddish words, schmaltz has mixed connotations - it can be used to describe something fine and expensive or something corny and over-the-top sentimental. But for many cooks, its true meaning lies on the palate. "If you don't use schmaltz, your food will be flavorless," says Russ Farer, general manager at Schlesinger's Deli in Center City. "It's that simple."
Schmaltz, of course, is the rendered fat of chicken (or goose) that European Jews adopted for kosher cookery in place of butter when tallow from beef proved prohibitively expensive. And along with some of the most peasant-y dishes in Jewish cooking, it's getting a reboot as restaurants like New York's Mile End Deli and Philly's Citron and Rose are reminding eaters of the pleasures of smoked meat and kishke. Once a secret, even shameful ingredient, schmaltz has actually started to show up as a proud menu descriptor in local restaurants, a homey substitution for its trendier cousin duck fat.
"I grew up with schmaltz, so it's funny now to see so many non-Jewish chefs using it," says Mitch Prensky, chef-owner of Supper. "But it's a great medium for cooking and has so many uses outside of traditional Jewish food." Prensky uses chicken fat in vinaigrettes, for poaching, for adding another dimension to cooked vegetables, even for Southern-style hush puppies.
At Citron and Rose, Michael Solomonov gives schmaltz center stage at the beginning of the meal, whipping it luxuriantly with onion and garlic and serving it in place of butter with the basket of homemade rye and challah breads. It's also, less surprisingly, a key ingredient in the roast chicken and potatoes.
Fork's Eli Kulp smears schmaltz on grilled rice cakes. At the Saint James in Ardmore, shavings of schmaltz melt, lily-gildingly, on top of the house cheeseburger.
But it's always been a staple at Schlesinger's Deli, where it enhances traditional dishes such as chopped liver, kasha varnishkes, kugel, potato pancakes, and, of course, matzo balls.
"People say 'don't use too much schmaltz' - they're afraid of the fat, but it brings out the zest in these foods," Farer says.
In his chicken skin-obsessed e-release The Book of Schmaltz: Love Song to a Forgotten Fat (2012), chef and author Michael Ruhlman talks about the role Jewish guilt plays in the cultural angst around the "artery-clogging" fat, which is why, he suspects, it fell out of favor in the late 20th century.
Perhaps that's also why ready-made schmaltz continues to be a bit of an endangered species. However, most supermarkets in Jewish communities will stock the Empire brand in the freezer section, at least during holidays. Duck fat (from D'Artagnan or the Rougie brand at Williams-Sonoma) can also be used in a pinch.
DIY schmaltz is just as easy, and the bonus is ending up with the byproduct of gribenes, or crisped chicken skin. Ask the butcher to set aside skin in advance. (At Whole Foods, it costs about $2 for 2 pounds.) While many traditional recipes cook schmaltz on the stovetop, the Mile End cookbook takes the oven route: Two pounds of chicken skin, cut into strips, are set in a roasting pan for the good part of an hour and stirred occasionally as the fat renders out. The cookbook's chicken salad sandwich economically uses both the schmaltz as a spread on toasted challah, and the gribenes as a crispy flourish on top, for results of optimal texture.
With a low smoke point and a less-dense texture than bacon or pork fat, schmaltz is best suited, alone or blended with oil, for sautes, or enriching foods as a last-minute fold-in. Solomonov will slow-poach garlic in schmaltz, then puree it and use it as an all-purpose flavor base. He's also been known to brush it on phyllo dough for spanakopita or b'stilla.
Evidenced by a long history in Jewish dishes like knishes and latkes, chicken fat is a natural with potatoes (and onions, where applicable) - hash browns, roasted wedges, even mashed. It can be smeared under chicken skin before roasting for an extra boost of golden crispiness.
But there's no need to limit it to poultry. A schmear of schmaltz can amp up grilled steaks, or even meatier fillets of fish. Prensky's caraway-and-mustard-studded salmon poached in chicken fat takes on a silky texture and a warm, well-rounded flavor on the palate.
The uses for schmaltz in home cooking seem limited only by the squeamishness of the cook. In Ruhlman's book, where the stated mission is to unabashedly reclaim schmaltz in all its glory, it's even the primary fat in an oatmeal cookie studded with dried cherries. Before baking, the dough smells, rightfully, like chicken, but heat brings an alchemic reaction whereby the sugar and cinnamon come forward, eclipsing the schmaltz flavor entirely.
And when one considers the long tradition of using lard in pie crust, it doesn't seem that unlikely. "It's just like when you bake a pie with cheddar cheese - the savory can support the sweet," Solomonov says. "If you did something with melting brown sugar and chicken fat, bringing out a toffee flavor, it would be pretty out of control."
Even if the rest of the world is ambivalent about schmaltz, it will continue to inspire reverence in the chefs that use it.
"Schmaltz is the story of my life," Prensky says. Solomonov, meanwhile, is considering a schmaltz tattoo.
Mile End Deli Gribenes and Schmaltz
Makes 2 cups gribenes and 1 cup schmaltz
2 pounds chicken skin with its fat
Diamond Crystal kosher salt
1. Spread the chicken skin and fat out on a baking sheet in an even layer. Place the tray in the freezer until the skin is partially frozen, about 1 hour. (This will make it easier to cut.) Transfer the chicken skin to a cutting board and cut it into 3-inch-long strips; then cut each strip crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the chicken skin pieces in a large roasting pan and toss them with 2 teaspoons of salt. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove the pan from the oven to give the skin pieces a stir. Return them to the oven and continue to bake, stirring every 10 minutes or so, until the chicken skin pieces have rendered their fat and are crisp and nicely browned. (The cooking should be monitored closely, especially as the chicken skin pieces start to brown, because they can go from browned to burned very quickly.) Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool for 15 minutes.
3. Carefully pour all the contents of the roasting pan through a metal strainer into a metal pot or other heatproof vessel. Leave the container over the pot to let the gribenes drain a couple of minutes more; then transfer the gribenes to a tray or plate lined with several layers of paper towels. Allow both the schmaltz and the gribenes to cool to room temperature.
4. Season the gribenes with more salt to taste if needed, and store them in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days. Transfer the schmaltz to a covered container and refrigerate it for up to 2 weeks.
Chicken Salad Sandwich
Makes 4 cups of chicken salad or 6 sandwiches
For the chicken salad:
1 whole chicken, approximately 3 pounds
Diamond Crystal kosher salt
4 scallions, finely chopped
3 stalks celery, finely chopped
1 cup mayonnaise
Freshly ground black pepper
For the sandwich:
12 slices challah
Pickled cherry peppers
1. Make the chicken salad: Place the chicken in a large pot of salted water and bring to a boil; reduce the heat and cook at a steady simmer until cooked through, about 1 hour. Remove the chicken from the pot and let cool completely. Remove the skin (discard it or reserve it for another use) and pull the meat off the bones. Coarsely shred the meat.
2. Place the shredded chicken in a large bowl and add the scallions, celery, and mayonnaise. Mix the ingredients together with your hands until they're thoroughly combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste; stir to combine.
3. To assemble one sandwich, spread some of the schmaltz onto a single side of 2 slices of challah, and place the slices schmaltz-side down onto a dry skillet over medium-high heat. Once the bread slices are lightly toasted around the edges, transfer them to a plate, schmaltz-side up. To one of the slices add a generous scoop of the chicken salad and top it with some gribenes, pickles, and cherry peppers. Place the second slice on top and press down gently.
Per sandwich: 551 calories, 44 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 28 grams fat, 191 milligrams cholesterol, 1,405 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Confit Salmon in Schmaltz
Makes 4 servings
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
Four 4-ounce portions wild king salmon, skin-on
2 cups rendered chicken fat (schmaltz), melted
For horseradish sour cream:
1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt and pepper
1. Combine salt, pepper, caraway, and mustard. Rub fish with spices and let marinate for 2 hours.
2. Place fish in a pan and cover fish with schmaltz. Set on a medium-low heat and poach until a thermometer inserted into the fish reads 110°. Remove from schmaltz and let rest on a plate in a warm spot. (The fish will continue to cook off-heat.)
3. Meanwhile, make the horseradish sour cream by combining the sour cream, horseradish, and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Garnish fish with dill and serve with horseradish sour cream.
Per serving: 512 calories, 28 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 42 grams fat, 112 milligrams cholesterol, 786 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Oatmeal Cookies With Dried Cherries
Makes about 18 cookies
3/4 cup schmaltz, well chilled or frozen
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1½ teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
11/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups old-fashioned oats (not quick-cooking)
2/3 cup dried cherries
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2. Cut the schmaltz into chunks and put it, along with both sugars, into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle. Mix on high until the fat is fluffy, 2 minutes or so. Add the egg, vanilla, and cinnamon and mix on low to incorporate.
3. Combine the salt, flour, and baking powder, and add this to the mixing bowl. Mix on medium to combine, 30 seconds or so. Add the oats and mix to combine. Add the cherries and mix to combine.
4. Shape the dough into golf ball-sized orbs and place on a cookie sheet. Flatten them to your desired thickness. (They won't spread much, but they will puff.) Bake the cookies until done, about 15 minutes.
Per cookie: 238 calories, 3 grams protein, 26 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 365 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.