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The Finest of the Fats

Food writer Michael Ruhlman develops a taste for Jewish cuisine’s key ingredient in The Book of Schmaltz

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Rendering schmaltz. (All photos Donna Ruhlman)
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Michael Ruhlman admits that it takes a certain amount of chutzpah for a non-Jew to tackle a topic like schmaltz—the onion-scented rendered chicken fat that powers traditional Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. But that is exactly what the food writer did in The Book of Schmaltz: A Love Song to a Forgotten Fat, a digital cookbook he published for the iPad last month with his wife, photographer Donna Turner Ruhlman.

In his defense, Ruhlman is a longtime “fat advocate,” promoting its culinary (and even health) benefits to a society largely dominated by fat-phobia. He is also co-author of Charcuterie, a book that he describes as an unabashed “ode to animal fat and salt.” So, late last summer, when his neighbor Lois Baron announced she was leaving a party early to go render some schmaltz in advance of the High Holidays, he seized the opportunity to get to know this new-to-him tribal fat.

In Baron’s kitchen, Ruhlman discovered a powerful truth that most people, including many Jews, have forgotten: Schmaltz is incredible—“unrivaled in flavor,” according to Ruhlman. Inspired, he set out to share his newfound passion for schmaltz with the wider world.

From a recipe-developing perspective, Ruhlman’s outsider status ironically gave him a creative edge. Yes, The Book of Schmaltz includes familiar dishes like kishke, matzoh balls, and chopped liver. (Ruhlman consulted extensively with Baron while testing these recipes.) But the book’s 20 recipes elevate their subject beyond standard Ashkenazi repertoire and bring schmaltz down a less-worn path: turning brioche dough savory (“schmaltz makes fabulous brioche,” Ruhlman said), flavoring fluffy Parisienne gnocchi, or rendering extra-crispy roasted potatoes. The book’s digital features, like the step-by-step photographs and a video clip featuring Baron, make schmaltz accessible and appealing to Jewish and non-Jewish cooks alike.

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The use of schmaltz in Jewish cuisine was born in the cold-weather climates of Northern and Eastern Europe. Far away from the sun-ripened olive oil of the Mediterranean, Ashkenazi Jews created dishes based on the limited ingredients available to them. According to Gil Marks’ The World of Jewish Cooking, the non-Jews in these regions “generally used lard for cooking,” a practice Jews replicated with kosher animal fat. Each winter they slaughtered fattened-up chickens (or geese in some countries), rendering the fat and crunchy bits of skin (called gribenes) with chopped onions into an unctuous, flavorful cooking oil—thick and satiny when cold, liquid at room temperature—that could be used all winter.

And use it they did. They crisped potato latkes and blintzes; bolstered their chopped liver, potato kugel, and kasha varnishkes (buckwheat groats and noodles); used it to flavor cholent and goulash; and spooned it onto slices of hearty bread. The savory bits of onion thrown in or on top of countless Jewish dishes were almost certainly browned in bubbling schmaltz. Even after arriving in America, where other cooking oils were more readily available, Eastern European Jewish immigrants continued to rely on schmaltz as a delicious, grease-slicked bridge back to their former homes.

As a result, schmaltz tugs hard on the strings of Jewish nostalgia. Consider my mother. An otherwise devoted healthy cook and fat-skeptic, she kept a cloudy glass jar of chicken fat in the fridge each Passover when I was growing up. She had long since cut out other childhood treats like ice cream sundaes and french fries from her diet. But each spring, she continued to, as she told me, “render the fat off the soup chickens with onion and a few pieces of skin for gribenes to sneak,” because her mother’s matzoh-ball soup just was not the same without it.

Like my mother, there are other diehard schmaltzies who never gave up on their beloved fat. The 83-year-old Sammy’s Roumanian Steak House on Manhattan’s Lower East Side still plunks a syrup dispenser filled with schmaltz on every table to be used as a condiment. And the schmaltz-laden matzoh balls bobbing in the Second Avenue Deli’s chicken soup are the stuff of slurpable legend.

And yet, during the second half of the 20th century, schmaltz suffered heavily under this country’s low-fat/no-fat regime. Along with lard, butter, and other animal-sourced fats, it was marginalized as a public health threat and replaced in kitchens by “heart-healthy,” plant-based fats like olive oil and margarine. Meanwhile, to a certain generation of assimilation-minded, America-embracing Jews, schmaltz was shunned as a totem of their parents’ and grandparents’ unforgivingly ethnic poverty cuisine. At a low point in Jewish delicatessen culture, many cooks yielded to customer pressure, subbing flavor-deficient vegetable oil into their chopped liver and kishke.

More recently, Americans have once again begun to embrace traditional cooking methods and ingredients—including the use of animal fats. New scientific evidence has also shed light on fat’s surprising health benefits, when consumed in moderation. As Daniella Cheslow wrote in Tablet, schmaltz “has less trans fat than margarine and more omega-3 fatty acids than most vegetable oils.” As a result, schmaltz has begun to make its way back onto tables—both Jewish and, thanks to Ruhlman’s cookbook, likely soon otherwise.

The shift toward schmaltz is not immediately discernible on supermarket shelves. According to Moshe Morrison, Fairway Market’s director of kosher foods, sales have not changed on the Empire brand rendered chicken fat they sell at each of the store’s 12 locations. But that does not mean people are not rendering and using schmaltz at home. “Like stock and mayonnaise, store-bought schmaltz just does not compare to the homemade version,” Ruhlman said.

Schmaltz has definitely found a home in the nouveau Jewish delicatessens and restaurants cropping up around North America. In Toronto, Zane Caplansky adds it to matzoh balls, chicken soup, chopped liver, and knishes at his popular deli, Caplansky’s, which opened in 2008. He also fries the onions for his lox, egg, and onion breakfast platter in what he calls “the quintessential Jewish cooking medium.” He said, “We have used schmaltz from Day 1, and there is simply no substitute.”

Noah Bernamoff of Mile End Delicatessen, which opened in Brooklyn in early 2010, is also a committed fan. “If I had to pick a single food or ingredient that embodies what we do at Mile End today … it’d have to be schmaltz,” Bernamoff writes in the introduction to the recently published Mile End Cookbook. “We make our own schmaltz every day, and we use it for everything—as a seasoning, as a cooking fat, even to enrich our baked goods. We use it instead of oil in our vinaigrette. What’s not to like about schmaltz?” Not surprisingly considering the sheer amount of savory fat going into its food, Mile End has quickly become one of New York City’s best-loved restaurants.

Despite Ruhlman’s unbridled enthusiasm for rendered chicken fat—or Caplansky’s or Bernamoff’s, for that matter—it is unlikely that schmaltz will erode olive oil’s kitchen dominance anytime soon. But its star is rising. Because underneath the country’s residual fear of fat lies a primal craving for straight-up, umami-driven flavor. And whenever it strikes, schmaltz is there to answer the call with its time-tested sizzle.

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Love it! Two points you forgot to mention…
1) Chicken fat is a natural sponge for factory farming adulterants like hormones, toxins and antibiotics. Such fat should be avoided unless you use the highest quality organically grown chickens (which tast way better also).
2) All these people who smear chap-stick on their lips all winter really need to eat more schmaltz because they are suffering from a lack of vital fatty nutrients.

Deborah Morris says:

ahhh, schmaltz! nothing better than schmaltz generously spread on matzoh with a sprinking of coarse salt — heaven!

Nothing wrong with cooking with schmaltz — unless, of course, you’re a kosher vegetarian….

Aaron says:

Schmaltz is my friend. Chopped liver without schmaltz is just boring and dull. It’s well worth the effort to render some chicken fat for cooking.

Great review and I can’t wait to try some of the recipes in this cook book.

Physical Therapy in Greensboro

Schmaltz rules but it does take time to get use to it!

Am having a hard time finding this ebook on itunes . Anyone have the same issue? I’d love to download it and get cooking!

I’m surprised your reporter did not note the excellent cookbook in Hebrew by Shmil Holland entitled Shmaltz, published in 2011. Shmil is a restaurateur and caterer, well known to Jerusalem diners, and he deserves credit for his work.

this article and the comments hereto have been sponsored, but not endorsed, by The American College of Cardiology

http://www.cardiosource.org/acc

Have a look at my potato chremslach stuffed with gribenes; just finished working out the recipe: http://alandivack.blogspot.com/2013/04/potato-chremslach-aka-martian-spacecraft.html

Miriam says:

I’m sure this is a wonderful cookbook and I remember my family using this in cooking.

However, after my husband developed cardiovascular disease in his early 40’s, I took a critical look at what we were eating.

I eliminated Eastern European cooking and never looked back. I can see having this as a rare treat but given health issues, obesity etc. that runs in my family, we stay away from this. I have discovered too many wonderful alternatives.

Miriam R says:

I took the book out of the library and while it is a wonderful cookbook, I refuse to cook like that.

We have all of the risk factors for heart disease and I dumped that way of cooking when my husband developed heart disease and I both his parents died prematurely within 6 weeks of each other.

Just this weekend my brother-in-law and two very close friends were hospitalized with very serious heart disease. One of them is in very serious condition. All three have the obvious risk factors.

I mention this, because in my journey to improve our health by lifestyle changes, I find that our Orthodox community has a problem that is denies.

At the end of the day, schmaltz is heart attack food and as delicious as it is, it just isn’t worth it. Eastern European cuisine is not longer welcome in my home.

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The Finest of the Fats

Food writer Michael Ruhlman develops a taste for Jewish cuisine’s key ingredient in The Book of Schmaltz

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