When someone says, "Oh, that’s too schmaltzy for me," they’re probably referring to something overly sentimental. That’s what the word has come to mean. But schmaltz is a Yiddish word for chicken fat.
Schmaltz is also one of Nina Barrett’s kitchen phobias. She’s working through a number of them in our series Fear of Frying: Culinary Nightmares. In the latest episode Nina explores the roots of schmaltz, and her own culinary tree.
Ina Pinkney, proprietor of Ina’s restaurant, knows from chicken fat. She knows where to get it, and more to the point, she knows how to get it.
“I have five pounds here,” Ina tells me in the kitchen of her Chicago apartment. “I called the butcher and I said, ‘I need chicken fat, so when you are butchering the chickens you have in the case—the thighs, the legs, the wings—could you please save me the chicken fat that you cut away?’ And he said, ‘You bet.’ Sometimes they charge you a minimal amount, sometimes they don’t charge you anything. Depends on how much you flirt with the butcher.”
This is the kind of lesson you are supposed to learn from your Jewish grandmother. You certainly can’t get it from a recipe. Modern Jewish cookbooks have renounced chicken fat with a vengeance, substituting heart-healthy vegetable oils. But if schmaltz, as it’s called in Yiddish, was what put the heart attack in Bubby’s cooking, it’s also what gave it the heart. It’s what added the flavor of an old, lost world that makes Jews of a certain age grow misty with nostalgia.
Ina learned schmaltz the right way, growing up in a kosher-keeping family in Brooklyn. But my Brooklyn grandmother died when I was four, and we moved from Manhattan to Connecticut, a state that would outlaw fat completely if it could. It’s pure faith in my genetic heritage and the wistful recollections of my Jewish elders that steels my nerves as I regard the golden globs of chicken cellulite that glisten in the track lighting of Ina’s kitchen.
“Okay, see the pieces are all cut about the same size,” she says. “and we’re going to put them in the pan. This is a braising pan, but any big pan would do, and I have water right here. I’m just going to cover it. We want it to be able to steam and melt.”
Ina’s crash course in chicken fat involves several segments. First, she’s showing me how to render it, by melting the scraps she got from the butcher.
“I’m going to cover it and turn it on medium,” she says.
She says we can’t even peek at it for 15 minutes because the steam has to build up in the pan. So in the meantime, we’re doing a little experiment. I’ve brought along a batch of matzo balls made according to my ancestral recipe, which is the directions on the box of Manischewitz Matzo Ball Mix. It calls for two tablespoons of vegetable oil. Ina’s made a batch using two tablespoons of schmaltz. We’re cooking both batches in the chicken soup I made from scratch last night.
“Now, I’m going to use this particular ladle that came from Julia Child’s kitchen,” Ina announces. “This is the first time I have ever used it. It was nice to get a package one day in the mail, when they were disassembling her kitchen to send to the Smithsonian, and her assistant said: Julia wanted you to have these, and sent me three pieces of utensils.”
Julia, she says, would have approved of what we’re doing. Of course, Ina knew Julia—Ina knows everyone, fyi—and with her blessing invoked, I start to feel that we have the power to conjure something magical from our simmering pots.
Perhaps because they’ve both absorbed the chicken flavor of the soup, the difference between the package matzo balls and the schmaltz-enhanced matzo balls isn’t really that pronounced.
“Tastes like a matzo ball,” Ina says.
In fact, pure unflavored chicken fat has a neutral quality that made it the staple shortening of many immigrant families—even for baking. To prove it, Ina produces a surprise.
“I made chocolate chunk cookies for you this morning,” Ina says, bringing out a platter. “Instead of a stick of butter, I used four ounces of the clarified chicken fat.”
“You’re kidding!” I say. “I thought you were kidding!”
“No, I’m not kidding.”
“You made cookies with chicken fat.”
“I did. Oil is oil. Shortening is shortening.”
Well, I don’t know what Ina’s normal chocolate chunk cookies are like but Ina’s Chicken Fat Chocolate Chunk Cookies are to die for. They’re moist, melt-in-your-mouth mounds of chewy cookie packed with rich Blommer’s chocolate chunks, and they don’t taste chickeny at all.
But if all chicken fat does is disappear into whatever you cook with it, I still don’t get its hold on the Jewish imagination. That is, until Ina pulls the lid off the pan where the fat has been rendering, releasing a steamy cloud of pure aroma.
“Look how beautiful!” Ina says.
“Oh! Mmmm!” I say. “And it smells—it smells like New York!”
“That’s a very good way to put it, it does smell like New York!”
“You know,” I say, “there’s this indefinable smell that you smell in New York when you walk down the street …and I’ve never known exactly what it was—but this smells just like New York!”
That’s the Lost World of my childhood coming back in a rush: the land of a thousand delis, a big collective kitchen of America’s immigrants, the literal melting pot in which, all of a sudden, I’m guessing an awful lot of chicken fat was being rendered into molten gold. It’s a sense that’s confirmed when Ina hands me one more dish to taste: Onions sautéed in schmaltz and then folded into mashed potatoes. It’s the inside of every knish my father ever bought me on the Staten Island Ferry.
By the time Ina hands me a jar of Artisanal Chicken Fat to take home along with some Chicken Fat Chocolate Chunk cookies, I’m imagining a whole new business venture.
“But maybe you could rehabilitate it,” I suggest.” You know, the way now we have Bacon Fest?”
Ina is skeptical. “Chicken Fat Fest doesn’t have a ring to it,” she says.” You know, and they’re making bacon cologne now? I don’t think chicken fat cologne would attract anybody.”
Cologne, maybe not so much. But I used Ina’s Artisanal Scmaltz to make home-made knishes, and I’m gonna tell you: it’s memory, in a jar.
For WBEZ, I’m Nina Barrett.
Instructions for Ina’s Chicken Fat Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Ina says she just followed the Toll House Cookie recipe, substituting chicken fat for the butter. But she made a few other significant alterations. She also substituted Blommer’s chocolate for the Nestle’s chocolate chips—and the quality of the chocolate was sublime! As someone whose chocolate chip cookies are always flat as pancakes, I was impressed by the way hers were nice, hefty mounds. She told me the secret for that was refrigerating the dough—preferably overnight, but she’d only had time to refrigerate them for a few hours and that seemed to do the trick. Also, she scooped the dough with an ice-cream scoop, which sizes them generously and uniformly—important to ensure that they also bake uniformly. Good luck, and if you give it a try, leave a post to let us know how it turns out!
Instructions for Rendering Chicken Fat
One of my main questions when I started working on this story was: Where does chicken fat come from? Obviously, it came from chickens; we’ve all seen that big blob on the south end of a whole chicken and we’ve scraped the fatty edgings off chicken parts. But how would you cook with that? Or, I wondered, were you supposed to save the drippings that come off a roasted chicken, or rise to the surface on a pot of chicken soup? Ina’s pronouncement on that was that, while you could use the drippings or the skimmings, they would also contain whatever flavorings—herbs, spices, and other ingredients—with which you’d prepared the dish, and which might not be desirable in whatever dish you’re go on to make (for instance, herbs and garlic in your Chicken Fat Chocolate Chunk Cookies).
So her advice, as noted in the piece, begins with:
1. Flirt with your butcher. Butchers trim tons of chicken fat off the parts they package for sale, and they’ll be happy to save it and sell it to you cheap. For the story, she started with five pounds, which for most of us would probably be a lifetime supply. It does keep nicely in the fridge, but a pound or two would probably be sufficient for most culinary projects.
2. Rinse the fat and put it in a large, heavy pan, just barely cover it with water, and then seal with a tight-fitting lid. Turn the flame on medium and DON’T PEEK for the first 15 minutes. This is when the fat is melting down, and Ina says it’s important to let a big head of steam build up inside the pot to do the job.
3. After 15 minutes, remove the lid and be sure to inhale deeply as the cloud of steam gushes from the pan. This is that incredible New York smell that we talk about in the piece.
4. Let it simmer for another 45 minutes, or so, till all the water boils off and you’re left with a big pool of pure, golden fat. (By now you and your entire house will smell delightfully like the Lower East Side.)
5. When the fat has cooled, pour it through a sieve to strain out all the bits and pieces. Depending on what you started with, you may have whole chunks of cartilage—which aren’t the same as cracklings (confit skin) and won’t taste good, so throw that stuff out.
6. Whatever you don’t use immediately can be stored in a jar or other airtight container in the fridge. It will solidify, but won’t harden as fully as butter or ghee, so it remains very easy to use without further warming.
If you want to share your chicken fat experiences—either cooking with, or just remembering, we’d love for you to leave a post!
Music Button: Don Byron, "Trombonik Tanz", from the CD ...Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, (Nonesuch)