Many posts ago I promised to do a piece on schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) and its delicious byproduct, grieven (or gribenes), and at last, a couple of years late, here it is.
I should point out that now poultry fats are once again in vogue, and have even been declared healthy one can purchase ready-rendered duck and goose fat in most supermarkets and grocery stores. But unless one has access to a kosher butcher, rendered chicken fat remains mysteriously elusive. This is a shame, for when made properly it is not only lighter and every bit as useful and tasty as its “posher” cousins, but also indispensable to genuine Ashkenazi (central and eastern European Jewish) cookery.
Fortunately, making schmaltz is as simple as it is rewarding. Turning a heap of chicken fat and skin into a refined golden liquid is as close as a cook can come to culinary alchemy.
When we’re in Spain, our market butcher Pepé, gives me bags full of skin and fat which would otherwise end up in the stomachs of the local pigs. This saves me the work of butchering a chicken myself and means that I can make months worth of schmaltz at a time. When in the UK however I normally do everything myself from scratch.
The kind of schmaltz one ends up with depends entirely on the type of chicken the skin and the fat originates from. The best quality schmaltz comes from old boiling hens, but these days, in Spain and England at least, these are hard to get hold of, and extortionately expensive when available. The rendered fat they yield has a mildly gamey quality, ideal for cooking things like gedempte beef, while the grieven (resultant pieces of fried chicken skin) is slightly chewy. The next best choice would be any kind of free range chicken, and corn-fed birds produce an especially golden schmaltz. But, if one is economising, then a large, fat supermarket broiler will do the job just fine, with the added bonus of a light grieven that melts in the mouth.
The illustrated recipe below was made using the latter variety of bird, but is applicable to all types of chicken – although with an old hen you will need a cleaver in addition to a very sharp knife. If shopping from a proper butcher, one could of course ask him/her to prepare the bird for you and proceed with the rest of the process from there.
The small amount of effort required to make schmaltz is more than worth it, and its uses are almost limitless. From humble egg and onion, to chopped liver, to kneidlach, to chicken blintzers, to latkes and potato kugel and all kinds of ein-gedempte meats and fowl, or just scraped on your breakfast toast with a little salt, schmaltz is to Ashkanazi cuisine what butter is to Belgian and olive oil is to Spanish. It is the essential flavour constant that gives Yiddisher cooking its distinct, and moor-ish character.
My mother and grandmother only used koshered chickens and would drop finely sliced onion into the grieven for the last few minutes of the rendering. While this resulted in a salty and rich flavoured grieven, it also made the grieven slightly soft and greasy and in addition gave the schmaltz a salty, oniony taste. I, on the other hand use non-koshered chickens and omit the onion, giving a more neutral tasting schmaltz (similar to unsalted versus salted butter) and a lighter, dryer and crispier grieven. It’s all a matter of taste, and completely dependent upon the whim of the cook, though I would suggest, if using a koshered chicken do be careful about adding extra salt.
Finally, once made, one can store the schmaltz for months, either in the fridge (where it will become opaque and solidify) or in a cool, dark pantry.