Prep School: Simple steps for matzo balls that float
Adding matzoh to broth (Styling by Lisa Schumacher, Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
Why you need to learn this
Full disclosure: This Irish Catholic writer is as goyish as they come, so, why matzo balls? Why not something more suited to my heritage, like potatoes? Or beer?
Regardless of your heritage, it never hurts to have some traditional dishes under your belt from a variety of traditions. And quite frankly, a bowl of matzo ball soup, at any time of year, makes me happy.
There are probably as many matzo ball recipes as there are grandmothers, and true aficionados tend to divide them into two camps: floaters and sinkers. Matzo balls are commonly found in a bowl of beautifully seasoned chicken broth, and depending on how they're made, they may contain enough air bubbles to cause them to float in that broth. Conversely, they may be so dense that they sink to the bottom of the bowl.
Let's talk about what goes into matzo balls, then, and what ingredients are likely to make them float or sink.
The main ingredient in matzo balls is matzo meal, which is simply ground matzo bread, itself made from flour and water. Available in most supermarkets, matzo meal comes in fine to coarse grinds, not unlike bread crumbs. To make matzo balls, you also need fat. Rendered chicken fat, called schmaltz, is traditional, but you could substitute oil or butter (though butter conflicts with kosher dietary restrictions prohibiting combining meat with dairy). Fat gives matzo balls a smooth texture, a silky mouthfeel and also adds tenderness and flavor, especially schmaltz.
There are a couple ways to get schmaltz: If you're making your own chicken broth (which we heartily recommend), chill it after it's done, and the fat will rise to the top and solidify. Scoop it off and melt it over low heat. Alternately, any time you work with chicken, trim away the extra fat before cooking and render it in a small skillet over low heat. Or, cut chicken skin into small pieces and render the fat. The browned bits, called "gribenes," can be used to garnish other dishes or flavor the matzo balls.
Eggs bind everything together because of the albumen in the whites. Some floater fans whip the whites separately before folding them into the dough to make a lighter product.
Liquid is also needed. This is most often water or chicken stock. For an airier product, substitute soda water or seltzer, and the gas bubbles will lighten the dough. Another way to get bubbles into the dough is with a chemical leavener, such as baking powder.
Generally, you'll need 3 to 4 eggs per cup of matzo meal, along with a 1 to 2 ounces of fat and, if needed, a couple ounces of liquid. One teaspoon of salt should be enough.
The steps you take
1. If you're using whole eggs, beat them in a metal bowl with liquid and melted fat. If you're whipping whites separately, start with only the yolks, liquid and fat.
2. Gently fold in the dry ingredients. If you've whipped the whites to soft peaks, fold them in carefully to avoid losing air.
3. Rest dough in the refrigerator overnight to fully hydrate the matzo meal.
4. Wet your hands and roll pieces of dough into the desired size.
5. Simmer the balls in salted water or stock until cooked through, about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on their size.
6. Serve matzo balls in flavorful chicken stock, and freeze any leftovers in the stock.
Jim DeWan is co-author with Jeffrey Elliot of "The Zwilling J. A. Henckels Complete Book of Knife Skills: The Essential Guide to Use, Techniques and Care."