Rendered Useful

Schmalz deserves a comeback

In the pecking order of maligned fats, the lowermost rung is reserved for schmaltz. In fact, you might say that schmaltz is the chopped liver of lipids. Whereas olive oil is the golden child, butter is wholesome goodness, and even lard is making dietary inroads, rendered chicken fat will always be early-grave food destined for the dustbin of cookery.

Not if Michael Ruhlman has his way. The Cleveland-based author wants to resuscitate schmaltz from its regrettable reputation. His goal is not only to grant a guilt-free pass to Jewish home cooks who might have given it up for perceived health benefits, but also to share its charms with lovers of great food everywhere regardless their religious beliefs.

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His new book, The Book of Schmaltz: Love Song to a Forgotten Fat, aims to prevent schmaltz from going the way of the lowly knish. The book is Ruhlman’s 20th and it originally began life as an e-book, gorgeously illustrated by his wife, Donna, and released as an iPad app.

On the electronic version, readers can click a link to hear the author’s kindly Jewish neighbor, Lois Baron, say the word schmaltz. Like all Yiddish words it sounds exactly like what it means: spreadable pleasure. It was Baron’s frequent endorsements of the long-snubbed fat, in fact, that ultimately motivated Ruhlman to act.

“I’ve always been curious about schmaltz and fascinated with its Jewish history,” Ruhlman explains. “That, combined with my love of fat in general, led to this book.”

The author explains in the book that schmaltz came about in typical use-whatyou-have manner. Owing to kosher dietary laws, Jews are precluded from using lard, which comes from pork. Even butter becomes treif (non-kosher) when a meal includes meat of any kind. And in early 20th Century Europe, you couldn’t exactly walk to the nearest 7-Eleven to grab a tub of margarine. Hence schmaltz, which could be rendered down from the Shabbat roast chicken.

Like Ruhlman’s Twenty, The Elements of Cooking, and Ratio, this is no run-of-themill cookbook. There are just a handful of recipes, categorized as “traditional” and “contemporary.” A good portion of the book is devoted to teaching about making, storing, and cooking with schmaltz.

“I’m not interested in big cookbooks with hundreds of recipes,” Ruhlman says. “I think there are too many recipes out there already. What we need more of is technique. I want to teach people how to cook.”

Schmaltz is slow food. Home cooks can’t just walk up to the local grocery and grab a pound of rendered poultry fat along with their quinoa and couscous. It must be made at home from the skin, scraps, and trimmings from one or more chickens. The process is labor intensive, and the resulting liquid is particularly perishable— not exactly a compelling argument for its resurgence.

“What schmaltz has going against it is also what it has going for it,” says Ruhlman in fine Jedi fashion. “You can’t buy it in a grocery store, you can only make it at home, and it doesn’t last forever.”

He says that the practice fits right in with newly fashionable cooking trends like pickling, canning, smoking, fermenting, and charcuterie. But above all else, making schmaltz simply is the sensible thing to do.

“We have this chicken, fat is useful and nutritious, and we’re certainly not just going to throw it away,” he says.

While schmaltz might not be convenience food, it ranks above all other fats in the most important categories. “Schmaltz has a flavor like no other fat,” asserts Ruhlman. “It has a roasted flavor built right into it. It has much more flavor than pork fat, and it’s remarkably versatile to cook with.”

Latkes fried in schmaltz come out ridiculously crispy and delicious. Matzo balls made without schmaltz are substandard imposters, and just try to whip up a respectable batch of chopped liver without a healthy dose of onioninfused chicken fat. Can’t be done.

It’s not just throat-clearing Jewish recipes like kreplach, kugel, and kishke that benefit from schmaltz. It is equally delicious schmeared atop grilled bread, it turns humble spuds into the world’s tastiest home fries, and it transforms brioche from a cloyingly sweet treat into savory dinner rolls loaded with umami. Unbound by religious dietary restrictions, Ruhlman was free to uncover modern uses for the ancient fat.

“I wanted to be able to explore the uses of schmaltz and not be restricted by the way it was in the Old Country,” he explains. “And let’s face it: In the wrong hands, so much of Jewish cooking is terrible.”

What made Schmaltz, the cookbook, so appealing a project for Ruhlman to tackle is that schmaltz, the ingredient, has become a useful, novel, and appetizing new tool in his culinary tool belt. For a chef, can there be a better reward?