There’s no two ways about it: I’m a food snob with an unfortunate taste for the better eats in life, much to the distress of my bank account, as well as my loved ones, who I drag to far-flung spots for the best this-or-that. I hate queuing but I wait in line for restaurants. There have been occasions such as the time where, having skipped breakfast in anticipation of lunch, I actually cried because some special noodle place was closed. (To be fair, I hadn’t eaten for 16 hours at that point and my mood corresponds to hunger levels.) I also have a terrible weakness for sea urchin and fancy cured meats. So thank god I like cooking and cycling, because my finances would be in pretty dire straits otherwise.
A fair bit of my mental energy these days goes towards thinking of ways to maximise the groceries in the fridge. I’m the kind of person who keeps a massive freezer bag of onion/carrot skins, veg ends and chicken wing tips for stock. There’s also a measly 3 coriander roots in a bag somewhere because I figure it’ll turn into gai yaang marinade one day when I accumulate enough roots. A couple of years back during my Sicilian citrus phase, I was turning all the pith into pectin because I couldn’t bear to see them go to waste. (Now I just compost them, which is a decent compromise.) My first stop at the local supermarket is usually the discount rack (2 avocados for JPY80? So there.) I regularly cycle 45 minutes across town to the wholesale supermarket just to stock up on meat and frozen spinach. So, surprise, surprise: I also love saving chicken skins in my freezer to render into fat.
I know it’s super-trendy to love fat these days but it’s nothing new in Asian food. (Bloody hipsters!) Neither Jewish nor sentimental am I, but my love for schmaltz runs deep – there is something so satisfyingly frugal about rendering chicken fat. One slow afternoon of almost no effort gives you a container of ambrosial oil which adds richness and depth to anything you cook with it. Your bonus by-product: the delicious sheets of crunchy chicken crackling, as addictive as crisps but infinitely worse for your waistline. I always justify this by telling myself that I’ve already rendered out, like, 80% of the fat.
It’s difficult where I live to find a supermarket or butcher supplying fat and chicken carcasses – I suspect that these go straight to the ramen shops, for obvious reasons – or even bone-in meat that doesn’t cost the earth. (If you live in Kyoto and know any better, please feel free to set the record straight.) Japanese consumers by and large seem to like their supermarket meat divvied up into neat and unsurprising packages, which is excellent if you need paper-thin pork slices for shogayaki, but not so much if you want to be making 10L pots of stock from off-cuts and bones that you’ve saved up from whole chickens. I miss having entire carcasses to work with! My local supermarkets have no options for bone-in chicken, so boneless thighs it is, usually from the wholesale supermarket across town. If they’re not being grilled or used in some capacity where the skin will end up crispy, I’ll peel the skins off and freeze them in a Ziploc bag. Every one and a half to two months or so, I’ll end up with a full bag of chicken skins ready for rendering.
There are a good many methods for rendering schmaltz, including one where you heat skin and fat with water for hours until the fat is entirely rendered out and the skin is crispy. This has never worked for me. Three or four hours later, I end up with floppy bits of rubber floating in a vaguely oily water slick. No gribenes were to be seen anywhere. This pan-frying method, on the other hand, is foolproof. It is impossible to fuck this up, unless you actually forget about it for an hour and it burns. Then sorry la can’t help you there.
How to Render Chicken Fat (Without an Oven)
Start with a nonstick frying pan on the lowest heat possible. A nonstick pan will save your ass when it comes to cleaning up later. Spread a few chicken skins in a single layer in the pan – don’t crowd them, since you want them to render evenly. Sprinkle with salt if you like, or you can do this afterwards. I like placing a metal spatula over one or two of the skins to ensure that they remain somewhat flat, since they’re liable to crumple and shrink when heated.
Now you don’t have to do very much. Leave them over that low heat to render. I generally forget about them for 10 minutes at a time, leaving to answer emails or wash dishes or whatever else it is that needs doing. Golden oil will leach out, pooling around your chicken skins, which will begin to turn golden-brown and a little translucent in some areas. I like to pour off the fat every now and then into a metal bowl, but you could just leave the skin as is until it’s completely rendered.
When the underside is golden brown, flip the skins and continue to let it render until both sides are gloriously burnished. There should be little to no areas of chewy fat. Pour off the remaining fat into a bowl, and put the chicken skins on kitchen paper to drain, dusting them with a little salt if you missed it earlier. Behold your palm-sized sheets (or little squares, whatever works) of chicken crackling. Eat them.
Using Your Chicken Fat
The question is: what doesn’t chicken fat improve? Use it in place of oil, or in combination with a little oil in your cooking. I especially love a good mix of mushrooms stir-fried in a dollop of schmaltz, seasoned simply with salt and pepper. The chicken fat adds an indefinable touch of luxury to an otherwise ordinary dish. Try roast potatoes: ones made vis-a-vis The Food Lab with chicken fat yield divinely crunchy results. I have not worked up the courage to spread schmaltz on toast with a sprinkle of salt (be still, my gasping arteries), but with rendering chicken fat being a bimonthly happening, I’ll probably get around to it eventually. Find me at the E.R. then.