Schmalz? Gribenes? Sound like characters in a cartoon strip from the turn of the LAST century, don’t they? In this case, though, they refer to two products from one of the most maligned chicken parts in our health-conscious world: the chicken skin. Schmalz is the liquid or semi-solid rendered fat, and gribenes is the crispy bits of skin left after rendering fat from skin (think: chicken equivalent of pork rinds). Why on earth would any one want to make these, much less eat them? Because they taste so-o-o good… Bad for you, absolutely. Delicious, undeniable.
We first sampled Schmalz when we lived in Germany, where it might be brought to the table as an alternative to butter for bread, or purchased as an open-faced sandwich snack. In Germany, though, most of the Schmalz we saw was made from pork lard, rather than from chicken — it was white and firm, and very bland on its own though it was most often flavored with herbs, onion and salt. I was never crazy about Schmalz in the 7 years we lived there.
Chicken schmalz, though, is a different animal. Golden yellow and fragrant, it makes a nice little smackerel on crusty bread, preferably sprinkled with its fraternal twin, gribenes. Schmalz can also be used as a condiment — I read that some delis offer schmalz on roast beef sandwiches! And gribenes can be used to garnish pasta, potatoes, salads — pretty much anything to which you want to add a little crunch. Other types of schmalz can be made from goose or duck fat.
Undertaking this process was more about finding useful purpose for things we would otherwise throw away than as a call to endanger heart health. I decided to try my hand at making schmalz when I ended up with a tray of a dozen kosher chicken thighs. Normally when we buy large quantities of meat, I divide them into smaller freezer packs, trimmed and ready for use later.
In this case I de-boned some of the thighs, and removed all backbones still attached to the thigh bones — those made a quick chicken broth that can be used for soup or for cooking. I also trimmed away the excess fat and most of the skin. Rather than throw out the skin as I usually did, I cut it up (kitchen shears worked much better than my knife) and threw it and the trimmed fat into a cast iron pan set on medium low.
To start, I did not add any seasoning. I wanted to keep some plain schmalz to use as a cooking medium, the same as we have a jar of ghee for certain types of South Asian cooking. As the fat began to render and liquefy, I removed enough to fill a half-pint jar to keep for cooking. I then added a quarter of a small onion, finely diced, to the pan and about a quarter teaspoon of sea salt. The pan continued cooking on medium low until the skin reached the desired browning and crispness. This took about 40 minutes total rendering/browning time.
I considered this finished.
After decanting the seasoned liquid schmalz into 2 containers (top and bottom right), I added some of the onions and gribenes to each container. The remaining gribenes were kept separate — they can be re-crisped before using. The clear gold jar is the unseasoned schmalz for cooking.
In the remaining fat in the pan, I browned a few skinless thighs for dinner, then deglazed the pan with some of the broth on the back burner. To be honest, I was so focused on the fat products that I hadn’t made an actual plan for the thighs themselves, so I put them and the deglazing liquid in the slow cooker with onions, garlic and bay leaves, as well as a cinnamon stick and cumin and caraway seeds with a vague notion of later adding chickpeas and dried apricots for a North African style stew. After cleaning up, I sat down for a break and to catch up with some favorite blogs when I came across an inspired touch from Rowena @Rubber Slippers in Italy. She shared a recipe for an African beef stew with a peanut butter sauce called Mafé, and there was something about the peanut butter that sounded really good to me. I immediately added some butternut squash, the chickpeas and the remainder of our jar of peanut butter — about a 1/3 cup, to the slow cooker. Rowena used different seasonings so I wasn’t sure how this would turn out, but in fact we really liked the final combination. Don’t you love when inspiration smacks you on the head like that?! (Thanks, Rowena!)
The schmalz for snacking will look like this before and after the fat cools. In the photo on the right, the gribenes was toasted in a toaster oven, where they “popped” and became even more like pork rinds in texture — airy and very crispy. I’m thinking they would be great mixed in with some popcorn too…
In keeping with my resolve to bake bread at home, I opted to make my own light rye bread to go with the schmalz and gribenes. I count kneading bread as exercise to justify these calories. LOL. No, really….
I limited myself to a single slice of bread as a snack. It was hard. Very hard.
From this kitchen experiment, we also got that African (via Lecco, Italy) chicken stew
with butternut and chickpeas in peanut butter sauce, and…
From the chicken broth we got a soup with Cinderella squash, lacinato kale, meatballs
and whole wheat shells for a second dinner the following night.
All in all, a very satisfying experiment!