Schmaltz, Butter's Sassy Brother

Though schmaltz is not the most traditional fat to use on Hanukkah, using it to fry latkes makes them crispy and more flavorful.

Vered Guttman
Vered Guttman
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Vered Guttman
Vered Guttman

In the December issue of Bon Appétit magazine, editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport recommended frying latkes in schmaltz, thus bringing this rendered chicken fat back to the spotlight. Although this is not the most traditional fat to use on Hanukkah (after all, for all we know, the menorah was lit with olive oil, not schmaltz), its strong presence can add another layer of flavor to potato latkes which, when done right, are pretty perfect already.

The Yiddish word schmaltz comes from German for “rendered animal fat.” Schmaltz was made by Jews in Eastern Europe from either goose or chicken and was a substitute for butter and lard in cooking and frying, allowing the Jews to keep the kashrut laws. To produce the schmaltz they would slowly cook little pieces of the goose or chicken skin at low temperature, sometimes with an onion to add flavor, until the fat is released. The melted fat was then strained through a fine sieve and was kept for months. The crispy skin pieces and onion bits that were left at the end of the process were a delicacy on their own, known as gribenes. Luckily, this process is not necessary (although might be fun to try; you can ask your butcher for chicken skin), because chicken schmaltz is sold in many kosher markets, and even in some branches of the big supermarket chains. Ready goose and duck fat are available online.

In the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Gil Marks writes, “The taste and smell of authentic Ashkenazic food is schmaltz.” I realized what he meant when my kids stepped into the kitchen when I was frying latkes in the chicken fat and asked if we were having chicken soup for dinner. Indeed, the melted chicken fat naturally smells like chicken soup, and can be a little overwhelming. Another problem with using schmaltz instead of oil is that the latkes are no longer parve, and if you’re keeping kosher, they cannot be served with sour cream on top.

But the latkes in schmaltz came out crispy and extra flavorful, and I would say deserve a try, at least for one of the days of the holiday. Our latkes recipe will work well with either vegetable oil, olive oil or schmaltz. The real bonus in this recipe is that you don’t need to peel the potatoes. I find that this method is not only (much, much) easier, but also adds a nice flavor to the latkes.

If you’re hesitating whether to venture into frying your latkes in schmaltz, but still want your fair share of pure cholesterol for the holiday, try this recipe for chicken liver paté. The recipe is very similar to the traditional chopped liver, but thanks to the schmaltz, the slow cooking of onions and livers, and the long processing of it all, the dish has a smooth, paté-like, texture. It is a perfect dish to serve in a Hanukkah party, next to homemade crostini. And it’s a reminder of the real benefit of using schmaltz, whether you keep kosher or not, as a flavor booster when used as a substitute for butter or oil. Ever thought of frying French fries in schmaltz?

The secrets of cooking with fowl fat.Credit: Adi Nass
Potato latkes fried in schmaltz.Credit: Vered Guttman

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