Schmaltz doesn’t get the respect it deserves.
The butt of countless jokes about clogged arteries and an early grave, this rich, rendered, onion-scented chicken fat is synonymous with the heavy, plodding food of the shtetls.
Even now, as medical science has given a nod to the moderate consumption of saturated animal fats, and the culinary elite has fallen hard for the likes of lard, tallow and duck fat, poor schmaltz remains the babushka-clad cousin not invited to the table.
This is a shame, because schmaltz is one the most versatile and flavourful fats you can use. Imagine the gentlest of butters infused with the taste of fried chicken, but with a fluffy lightness that melts in the mouth. When it’s properly made, schmaltz has a brawny, roasted character that comes from the bits of poultry skin that brown in the pan. (Those crunchy, golden fried pieces of skin are called gribenes, and they are an addictive snack in their own right.)
The fall of schmaltz was cemented with the cholesterol scare of the 1970s, which turned the wonderfully rich substance into a punch line.
But schmaltz has persisted, and in certain quarters you can catch the oniony whiff of a comeback.
The food writer Michael Ruhlman said he decided to write his 2013 cookbook “Schmaltz” because, after years of vilification, many people were scared to eat it. Ruhlman, the rare schmaltz proponent who is not Jewish, fell in love with it after trying it with a neighbor, who then gave him lessons in making it.
“I got tired of hearing people talk about schmaltz as a 'heart attack on the plate,'” he said.
Schmaltz and Gribenes
3/4 pound chicken skin and fat, diced (use scissors, or freeze then dice with a knife)
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 medium onion, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch slices (optional)
In a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, toss chicken skin and fat with salt and 1 tablespoon water and spread out in one layer.
Cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes, until fat starts to render and skin begins to turn golden at the edges.
Add onions and cook 45 to 60 minutes longer, tossing occasionally, until chicken skin and onions are crispy and richly browned, but not burned.
Strain through a sieve.
Reserve the schmaltz. If you want the gribenes to be crispier, return to the skillet and cook over high heat until done to taste. Drain gribenes on a paper-towel-lined plate.
Note: If you’d rather make the schmaltz in the oven (less splatter), skip the water, spread salted skin and fat on a baking sheet, and bake at 350 degrees, stirring every 10 minutes. Add onion after 15 minutes. The timing will be about the same for both methods.