Confession – I never heard the term “schmaltz” until sometime in the last decade. Growing up on the farm, rendered poultry fat was prized for cooking and baking, but I didn't realize it had a name other than chicken fat, duck fat, goose fat, etc.
Thankfully, I've had a chance to rediscover this wonderful cooking oil, first, with poultry fat from a friend, and more recently, with chicken fat from our first flock of broilers.
What is Schmaltz?
Schmaltz is rendered poultry fat. Currently, it's most commonly made with rendered chicken fat. It can also include duck or goose fat. (Not many geese and ducks on the dinner table in recent years.) In Jewish tradition, lard isn't kosher, and dairy can't be combined with certain meats, so rendered poultry fat filled a need.
Growing up on the farm, we raised large flocks of ducks and geese for sale and home use. Mom always carefully rendered the fat for use in cooking and baking. Waste not, want not.
How to Make Schmaltz (Rendered Chicken Fat)
Start with clean chicken fat or fatty chicken skins. Sometimes when you butcher, little bits of grit get stuck in with the fat, so make sure to give everything a good rinse. If you don't have a large amount of poultry fat from butchering, you can save up fat over time and store it in the freezer.
Some butchers also sell chicken fat or fatty skins, depending on your area. (Others might just give you a crazy look when you ask.)
If the fat/skin is in large pieces, cut it into smaller pieces for quicker rendering. It helps if the fat is partially frozen, but a sharp knife will do the job even if it's not frozen. If you want to make gribenes (crispy skin bits), small pieces are a must.
Place your chicken fat (poultry fat) in a heavy bottomed pan on low heat. (It helps to have a bit of water clinging to the fat to get started.) Heat gently, stirring occasionally, until fat is melted and skin/connective tissue is light brown. Don't scorch it! You're looking for neutral cooking oil, not charbroiled bird flavor.
Strain melted fat through a metal strainer. For clearer oil, line with a coffee filter or several layers of cheese cloth. Pour into a glass jar for storage (wide mouth mason jar or peanut butter jars work well). Cool and refrigerate for up to a week. For longer storage, keep it in the freezer. (Don't forget to label and date.)
To Make Gribenes
To finish the gribenes, return the chunky chicken bits to the pan. Add a healthy portion of chopped onion. Cook on low heat, stirring frequently, until skin/chicken bits are dark brown and onion is caramelized. Remove from pan and drain on a paper towel.
Alternatively, some people add the onions directly to the fat during the last stage of cooking for an onion flavored schmaltz. Since I like my poultry fat for baking, I keep any onions separate from the fat.
The chicken chunks can be cooked to brown in the chicken fat before straining. Eat the crispy chicken bits while still warm, or refrigerate and use within a few days or freeze.
Where Can I Buy Schmaltz?
As mentioned above, you may be able to find raw chicken fat from a variety of sources to make your own schmaltz. (This is likely the most budget friendly option.) If you're lucky enough to have a Kosher store or deli nearby, they may stock it as well.
It's also available online, such as this 100% Organic Chicken Fat (Schmaltz), Free Range, Kettle Rendered from fatworks. Amazon also stocks rendered duck fat and rendered goose fat.
Is Chicken Fat Healthy?
I hunted and hunted online, but couldn't find any nutrition info specifically focused on chicken fat. There are studies that indicate that pastured eggs and pastured chicken meat have higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids, more vitamin E and other health benefits, but nothing specifically on fat.
I think it's safe to say that the adage, “You are what you eat” holds true for livestock as well as people. If you're rendering chicken fat from a factory farm bird raised only on grain with no opportunity to forage, odds are it'll be higher in omega 6 fatty acids. (Enjoy in moderation.) With slow growing, free range poultry, you'll likely see more omega 3 fatty acids.
We found that with our Red Rangers, which had plenty of time outside with fresh grass and other tasty garden bits, and a daily snack of undersized walnuts, their fat was amazingly silky and fine textured.
My youngest, who helped with evisceration, noted that the fat dramatically improved the dry skin on his hands. (He's been working in the garden quite a bit this fall and his hands are quite rough.) He even requested that I set a little rendered fat aside for him to use as a hand cream. (We did find that the rendered fat doesn't soften quite as well as the raw fat, but it still helps.)
Rendered Chicken Fat Uses
Schmaltz is traditionally used as a spread or for frying (think substitute for butter or lard). I've heard matzoh ball soup isn't the real deal without schmaltz. In our family, mom always reserved the rendered poultry fat for baking, especially holiday baking.
It's Not Just About the Fat
We put a lot of care into raising our own chickens, so it matters to me that we use as much of the bird as possible. We regularly get multiple meals from each bird, starting with roasted chicken, and making soup from the carcass and leftover meat bits.
If I don't make soup right away, I still use the carcass to make homemade broth (including the chicken feet). Chicken livers make yummy liver spread. This fall I'll be experimenting with ways to prepare the other giblets. (Your favorite recipes are welcome.)
Have you processed your own birds or rendered poultry fat? Do you have questions, comments or suggestions? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.
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