Schmaltz is Yiddish for rendered fat. Often made from goose or chicken, schmaltz was once an important part of Eastern-European Jewish cuisine. In the parlance of American entertainment, which was built on the foundation of Yiddish theater, schmaltz came to refer to drippy, over-the-top dramatization.

Why Schmaltz?

  1. Schmaltz is delicious (or so say those in the know).
  2. Olives or other organic sources of oil were not widely available in those parts of Europe.
  3. Lard, once the cooking and baking fat of choice, is made from pigs and not kosher (learn more about pigs in Judaism).
  4. Butter, which is dairy, cannot be used to make foods that will be eaten with meat, so it is not a practical oil for many meals (learn more about the separation of meat and dairy).

How to Prepare Schmaltz

Carefully remove fat and skin from the chicken (some kosher butchers will sell you this separately), and chop the skin into small pieces. Start cooking the fat and skin in a saucepan over medium-low heat. The fat will start to render, producing a clear liquid, and at this point, some cooks like to add onions. Keep cooking the mixture slowly and when the bits of skin become crusty and brown (called gribbenes, and known to be extremely tasty and unhealthy) pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer. That is your schmaltz— a greasy, stinky but delicious substance that you can use for frying, cooking, and even salad dressing if you dare. The gribbenes, a kind of crackling, can be snacked on, used to flavor other dishes, or even spread on challah as a heart-attack-inducing treat.

Schmaltz in English Parlance

When the Lower East Side Jewish actors made their way to Hollywood, they took their Yiddish (and Jewish sense of humor) with them. In Hollywood-speak, examples of schmaltz would be overly-sappy lyrics, a super-dramatized scene, or horn-heavy music that plays louder than necessary.

Schmaltz on Passover

On Passover, many people are particular to eat food that has been processed as little as possible, minimizing the likelihood that the food has somehow come into contact with chametz. This, coupled with a strong affinity for tradition, has led to the custom in some families to cook and bake only with schmaltz for Passover, eschewing oils which cannot practically be made at home.

There Is No Schmaltz in Schmaltz Herring

Not made with schmaltz per se, schmaltz herring is herring that has been pickled in oily brine instead of vinegar. This is a favorite treat at Shabbat morning kiddush receptions, often enjoyed on kichel, a hard, airy biscuit. It is interesting to note that making herring with authentic schmaltz would actually be forbidden by Jewish law, as mixing fish and meat (including poultry) is considered dangerous in Talmudic tradition. This is mentioned in the Code of Jewish Law with the admonition that health concerns are to be treated with even greater gravity than ritual laws.