So now we know that animal fats are not as bad for you as previously thought, while hydrogenated oils and genetically-modified canola aren't the saviours they were supposed to be. Hence butter is making a victorious comeback. In some areas (like Oregon), so is lard. But this post is for that little unsung Jewish hero of the cooking-fat world... Yep, we're making schmaltz.
This is about the easiest thing I've ever done in my kitchen. It takes less prep time and attention than a salad. And the end result is so, so worth it. It was dirt cheap, too - cost me about $1.50 for two whole cups of schmaltz, plus the gribenes! (More on gribenes in a minute.)
You start by going to your local butcher and asking for chicken fat. My butcher had a pound and a half of it lying around, so that's how much I got. Sometimes they'll just give it to you; sometimes they sell it cheap. My butcher gave it to me for 99 cents a pound. So get your chicken fat home and cut it up into chunks, about an inch or two in size, until you've got this nice big quivering pile of fat. Appetizing, isn't it?
Once it's all cut up, throw it in a cast-iron skillet or some other heavy cookware, and spread it out evenly. Turn the heat onto low - not crazy low, but not quite medium either, just enough to start melting the fat.
You don't have to stand over it, but keep an eye on it for a few minutes while you chop up some onion. (Sweet onions like Vidalia or Walla Walla are great here.) When the chicken fat starts to melt a bit, sprinkle the onions on top. Then sprinkle on a hefty dose of salt - about a tablespoon. Don't stir it yet.
Let it keep cooking. The fat will start to simmer gently. If it's cooking too hard, turn your heat down; if it's not simmering, turn it up a little. Hang out in the kitchen and do other stuff while glancing over at the schmaltz every so often. When it really starts to melt, give it a stir. You'll let it cook like this for about 45 minutes, stirring every so often. The fat will melt down completely, leaving your onion bits and chunks of chicken skin and meat floating in it. Let it keep cooking until the onion and chicken chunks - the gribenes - are dark and fried.
When you get there, take a slotted spoon and transfer all the gribenes to a plate lined with paper towels. Pat another towel on top to soak up some more grease. Try a bite - OH MY! That's so good! - and set aside.
Now shut off the heat and lay a strainer over a glass or metal container for the schmaltz. DO NOT use plastic for this. Once the strainer's in place, carefully lift the skillet and pour all your schmaltz through the strainer. Discard the strainer contents, and there you are! You have schmaltz!
As you can see, I got about two cups of schmaltz out of that pound and a half of chicken fat. And yes, that is a big glass of pure fat. Don't get turned off by that; you're not going to drink it. You're only going to use a spoonful or two at a time, if that, like butter or olive oil. It will turn solid in the fridge, like butter, and last a very long time! So wrap it up and stick it in the fridge. You can use it just like butter or oil for cooking - stir-fry things in it, melt it and toss it with vegetables for roasting, even spread it on toast or mix into a baked potato. It has a wonderful flavor and it's so easy to work with.
As for the gribenes... you're going to have to make an effort not to gobble them up immediately. These are delicious, but definitely should be enjoyed sparingly. I'm thinking I'll add some of these to a salad tomorrow; they can also be served on bread, mixed into casseroles, or baked into cornbread like cracklings. You will probably wind up eating them straight though. They are that tasty!