Schmaltz (also spelled schmalz or shmalz) is rendered (clarified) chicken or goose fat used for frying or as a spread on bread in Central European cuisine, and in the United States, particularly identified with Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. Rendered waterfowl fat is also used in the cuisine of Southwestern France. As an effect of cross-cultural influences of the Jewish Ashkenazi, Polish, and Ukrainian cuisine, it is also popular in Poland and Ukraine, where rendered fats (including lard) are called smalec, with schmaltz derived from geese being popular as gęsi smalec.
The English term "schmaltz" is derived from Yiddish, and is cognate with the German term Schmalz, meaning "rendered animal fat", regardless of source: both tallow and lard are considered forms of Schmalz in German, as is clarified butter. English usage tends to follow Yiddish, where it means poultry fat.
The term "schmaltz" entered English usage through Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews who used it to refer to kosher poultry fat; the word שמאַלץ shmalts is the Yiddish word for rendered chicken fat. The word is common to the High German languages, including both Yiddish and modern Standard German, and comes from Middle High German Schmalz, a noun derived from the verb schmelzen, meaning "to melt". The verb can be traced back to the Germanic root "smeltan", which survives in the Modern English verb "to smelt".
Schmaltz rendered from a chicken or goose was used by northwestern and eastern European Jews who were forbidden by kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) from frying their meats in butter or lard, the common forms of cooking fat in Northern Europe, as butter, being derived from milk, cannot be used with meat under the Jewish prohibition on mixing meat and dairy, and lard is derived from pork, an unkosher meat. Furthermore, tallow derived from beef or mutton would have been uneconomical, particularly given that virtually all suet (the raw material for tallow) is chelev and its consumption is forbidden. Northwestern and Eastern European Jews also could not obtain the kinds of vegetable-derived cooking oils such as olive oil and sesame oil, used in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean (as in Spain and Italy). Thus Ashkenazi Jews turned to poultry fat as their cooking fat of choice; the overfeeding of geese to produce more fat per bird produced modern Europe's first foie gras as a side effect.
The manufacture of schmaltz involves cutting the fatty tissues of a bird (chicken or goose) into small pieces, melting the fat, and collecting the drippings. Schmaltz may be prepared by a dry process where the pieces are cooked under low heat and stirred, gradually yielding their fat. A wet process also exists whereby the fat is melted by direct steam injection. The rendered schmaltz is then filtered and clarified.
Homemade Jewish-style schmaltz is made by cutting chicken or goose fat into small pieces and melting in a pan over low-to-moderate heat, generally with onions. After the majority of the fat has been extracted, the melted fat is strained through a cheesecloth into a storage container. The remaining dark brown, crispy bits of skin and onion are known in Yiddish as gribenes. Another simple method is as a by-product of the making of chicken soup. After the chicken is simmered in the pot or crock-pot, the broth is chilled so the fat rises to the top and can be skimmed off, at once providing schmaltz to set aside for other uses and a lower-fat soup, which is brought back to heat before serving.
Schmaltz often has a strong aroma, and therefore is often used for hearty recipes such as stews or roasts. It is also used as a bread spread, where it is sometimes also salted, and generally this is done on whole-grain breads or black breads which have a strong flavor of their own. It can be used in such salads as egg salad and chicken salad as mayonnaise is used, as a fatty addition to such recipes as latkes (potato pancakes) or kugel, or instead of butter when pan-frying potatoes, onions, or other foods.
Various vegetarian (and consequently pareve) versions of schmaltz have been marketed, starting with Nyafat (U.S., Rokeach and Sons, 1924), which is largely coconut oil with some onion flavoring and color. Vegetable shortening is also used as a substitute.