Anybody who wants to make truly authentic Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine must first learn how to make schmaltz and gribenes. Schmaltz is an important ingredient in many Jewish recipes, and is a must-know for anybody wanting to prepare authentic Ashkenazi cuisine. Gribenes are a by-product of the process used to collect schmaltz. Some of you might find this blog a bit– well, unappetizing. To the modern health-conscious cook, schmaltz and gribenes sound like a heart attack waiting to happen. Schmaltz is full of cholesterol, but it adds a very unique flavor to dishes that is unmatched by any other type of oil. While many people find gribenes delicious, others might consider them too strange or unhealthy to enjoy. Take them or leave them, schmaltz and gribenes are quintessentially Jewish.
Though richly flavored, both dishes evolved out of frugality. In Eastern Europe and other Ashkenazi countries, chicken meat was an expensive treat. When a chicken was purchased from the butcher, every part of the bird was used. Schmaltz and gribenes are two creative ways of using parts of the chicken that might otherwise be thrown away.
Schmaltz is basically rendered chicken fat. It is collected by slowly sautéing chicken skin and fat, then collecting the liquid fat that melts as it cooks. It’s easy to make and adds an authentic flavor to many Jewish recipes, including matzo balls and chopped liver.
After collecting the schmaltz, continue to fry the chicken skin with onion to produce a batch of crispy little gribenes. They can be snacked on as-is or added as a condiment to other dishes. I like to think of gribenes as the Jewish alternative to bacon. It’s fatty, flavorful fried goodness—and it’s kosher!
You might be wondering, “Where do I get a whole pound of chicken skin and fat?” Well, you can collect it from your everyday chicken recipes (store it in the freezer and thaw before using), or you can ask your butcher. Regular butchers will sometimes give it to you for free, since it’s stuff they would normally throw away. Kosher butchers will usually charge you, though, because they know what you’re up to!
You can also collect schmaltz by cooling chicken soup in the refrigerator, then skimming the solid fat that rises to the top. I prefer the method described here, as it consistently produces perfect golden schmaltz every time.
Next week, I’ll be posting my traditional chicken chopped liver recipe, which uses both schmaltz and gribenes in the mix.
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To Make Schmaltz
- Rinse the pound of chicken skin and fat, pat dry, then chop it into small 1/2 inch pieces.
- Place the skin and fat into a skillet on the stovetop (make sure it's nonstick!) and turn heat to low. Cover the skillet and let it cook on low for about 15 minutes. Liquid fat will start to pool at the bottom of the skillet.
- Uncover the skillet and raise heat to medium low. Let it cook for another 15-20 minutes, breaking the pieces apart with a spatula and stirring frequently, until the skin starts to brown and curl at the edges. At this point there should be quite a bit of liquid fat at the bottom of the pan—this liquid is your schmaltz.
- Remove pan from heat. Pour the schmaltz from the skillet into a container, using a mesh strainer to catch any small pieces of skin.
- A golden oil will result—this is called schmaltz. It can be used in a variety of Jewish dishes or as a cooking fat. Reserve the cooked skin and fat pieces, you can use them to make gribenes. The schmaltz will stay liquid at room temperature; it will become solid and opaque if you refrigerate it.
To Make Gribenes
- After collecting the schmaltz, return the cooked chicken skin and fat to the skillet. Peel the onion, cut it into thin slices and add it to the skillet.
- Season the chicken skin and onions generously with salt and pepper. Turn heat to medium and sauté the mixture for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently, until the pieces are dark brown and crispy. Don’t leave them alone for long or they’ll burn! You want them dark brown, but not blackened.
- Remove the gribenes from the skillet with a slotted spoon and drain them on a paper towel.
- Season again with salt and pepper to taste. Gribenes can be snacked on as-is or added to other dishes as a topping.