Schmaltz can be classic flavor-enhancer


So why, you’re thinking, is Ms. Healthy Meals lauding the virtues of schmaltz, the product rendered from the fat and skin of chickens? Wasn’t she just recently promoting olive oil, that monounsaturated fat associated with reducing the risk of heart disease, lowering cholesterol, and preventing various cancers? But now schmaltz? That Old World saturated fat that’s bad for the heart and derives 100% of its calories from fat? So what’s up with that?

Bear with me, dear reader. I started thinking about schmaltz when I came across this passage on page 192 of Healthy Jewish Cooking (Viking Press, New York) by chef Steven Raichlen:

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“Schmaltz is actually better for you than butter. Tablespoon for tablespoon, schmaltz contains one-third the amount of cholesterol and half the amount of saturated fat found in butter. A tablespoon of schmaltz actually contains less overall fat than an equal amount of olive oil.”

Wait, I thought. I bake almost exclusively with butter, and buy olive oil in one-gallon tins. That, and my mantra of “everything in moderation,” gave me reason to reconsider schmaltz.

The origin of schmaltz in Jewish cooking was more a matter of necessity than taste. Back before vegetable-based oils were mass produced, the only oils available for cooking were butter and lard. Lard, rendered from pig fat, was not an option under the laws of Kashrus. Butter, derived from cow’s milk, is a dairy product. Kashrus prohibits the mixture of meat and dairy. Thus rendered chicken fat was the only option for observant Jews who wanted to use fat in the preparation of meat dishes.

But for me, there was only one reason to use schmaltz: it tastes great! I am not recommending it be used in place of other healthier fats. Rather, it should be used judiciously as a flavor enhancer. Chopped liver made with schmaltz exists on a loftier gastronomic plane than the same dish made with vegetable oil. I’ve been told that just a couple teaspoons of schmaltz added to a matzo ball mixture adds ta’am. And the addition of just a teaspoon of schmaltz will turn an ordinary bowl of chicken soup into liquid gold. I can only imagine what a teaspoon or two would do for the flavor of a beef stew, cholent, chicken salad, or potato latkes.

I grew up with schmaltz. My mother would prepare her own version when making chopped liver. She would place the gribenes — the ultimate treat — on a napkin for my sister and me to share. (Gribenes are the crispy pieces of chicken skin that remain once the fat has been rendered.). My other schmaltz memory occurred when I was ten and our neighbor, Bronia Kupfer, offered me a slice of rye bread smeared with schmaltz and topped with freshly minced garlic. I still remember rolling my eyes in ecstasy.

If you’re not into the process of rendering schmaltz, you can find it in the freezer section of Kohn’s Market. Recently, I visited with Rosemary Cooper and Lenny Kohn and some of their customers at the store in Creve Coeur. Everyone was surprised by my interest in schmaltz. As Lenny explained, “We stopped making our own five or six years ago. We now make our chopped liver with vegetable oil.”

Rosemary remembered back to when they made schmaltz in the store. “We would invite our closest friends to come in and share the gribenes.”

As my parents became more health conscious, schmaltz and chopped liver disappeared from our table. My creative mother replaced her real chopped liver with a mock rendition she made from canned French-cut green beans, onions saut éed in vegetable oil, and hard boiled eggs. A few years ago, I pleaded with her to make my beloved chopped liver just once more. She did. It was heavenly.

This week I made authentic, old-fashioned chopped liver, a/k/a/ gehockte leber, complete with homemade schmaltz, hand-chopped liver, hard boiled eggs and onions saut éed in my schmaltz.

I started the process while getting dinner ready. I shared a good laugh with my husband over the contrast of preparations going on in our kitchen. On the left side of the stove top, I was rendering schmaltz from a cup of chicken skin and fat. On the right side, I was saut éing farm-fresh collard greens in a teaspoon of olive oil (instead of the more traditional bacon and lard typically used in the preparation of that dish).

While the collard greens came out fine, the results on the other side of the stove were fabulous. I even invited my parents over for a private tasting, and both of them gave me a big thumbs-up. I made two different batches: one with chicken liver and one with beef liver. Though both were delicious, I prefer the chicken liver version. The liver flavor is more subtle and the texture lighter. Oh, yes, as Ms. Healthy Meals is pleased to advise, chopped liver packs a huge dose of iron, plenty of protein, and, alas, a few other nutritional elements that underscore the wisdom of my mantra: Everything in moderation.

Just in case I’ve piqued your interest, here are the recipes and directions for these culinary delights.


1 cup chicken skin and/or chicken fat

1/2 of a small onion

Pinch of salt

Place chicken skin/fat in a medium-sized pot and cook slowly over medium heat for 10 minutes.

Add onion and a pinch of salt and continue cooking until all the fat is rendered and chicken skin and fat are brown and crispy, approximately 15 minutes more. Cool in pot for 10 minutes.

Place a piece of cheesecloth over a small jar and pour the contents of the pot over the cheesecloth. Cover the jar and store in the refrigerator. Drain the gribenes and onion on paper towels and indulge yourself.

Chopped Liver

1 pound chicken livers

2 Vidalia or other sweet onions, finely chopped

4-5 tablespoons schmaltz

4 eggs, hard boiled and peeled

Salt and pepper, to taste

Additional schmaltz, to taste

Preheat broiler. Rinse chicken livers and pat dry with paper towels. Place livers on a foil-lined pan, lightly salt, and place under the broiler.

Broil livers 10-12 minutes, turning halfway through, until they are browned and slightly pink inside.

Remove pan and place livers onto a plastic cutting board. (You could also place them into a wooden bowl and chop them with a hand-held chopping blade called a crescent cutter, available at the Kitchen Conservatory in Clayton.)

While livers are cooking, heat schmaltz in a large frying pan and add the onions.

Cook onions slowly over medium heat for 20 minutes or until they just begin to brown and become translucent. Season lightly with salt and set aside.

In a medium bowl, mash eggs with a fork. Set aside.

Using a long sharp knife or crescent cutter finely chop liver.

Add liver to the bowl with the eggs and mix together.

Add the reserved onions and schmaltz from the pan. Stir well with a fork, mashing the contents together lightly.

Season chopped liver with additional schmaltz and salt and pepper to taste.

Tightly pack chopped liver into a smaller bowl and serve immediately or store covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.