Battle of the Matzoh Balls

Photo by CN Digital Studio
Photo by CN Digital Studio

by Sarah Kagan,

Growing up, I always loved my mother's matzoh balls. I would watch her carefully forming them, cradling the batter gently in the palms of her hands so as not to deflate it. About two inches in diameter and as light as clouds, they disintegrated into a delicious fluffy mass in her chicken soup. They seemed to me the apotheosis of the form, and it never occurred to me to want something different.

Related: Recipes for a Stress-Free Seder

Then I met my now-husband, Jason, and celebrated my first Passover with his family. His brother-in-law's matzoh balls were the polar opposite of my mother's: The size of golf balls and almost as hard, they had to be skewered with a fork while digging in with a spoon, to avoid shooting them out of your bowl and across the room. At first I was appalled. But then I began to be won over by their agreeably chewy texture and rich flavor.

Thus I was introduced to the Battle of the Matzoh Balls. As I began to ask around, I discovered that there is no issue more contentious in all of Jewish cooking. The camps are miles apart: In one corner are the proponents of "floaters," who employ everything from stiffly beaten egg whites to club soda in order to lift their batter to heavenly heights. In the other corner are the "sinker" folks, dismissive of an "insipid" fluffy texture-they prefer a more meaty, substantial matzoh ball. These two groups have been duking it out for generations.

But it gets even more complicated. There are the traditionalists, who insist that authentic matzoh balls cannot be made without schmaltz, the rendered chicken fat used by Eastern European Jews. And there are the revisionists, who, for health or aesthetic reasons, favor oil or even-gasp-butter, which conflicts with kosher dietary laws if served in a meal with meat. Put them all together, and it's an out-and-out free-for-all.

Nor do the experts agree. Jewish cooking maven and author Joan Nathan prefers her matzoh balls "a little bit al dente. I like to be able to bite into them." She eschews "colorful" tricks such as using seltzer or beating the egg whites separately, and instead relies on a proper balance of egg to matzoh meal (too much meal produces a heavy, leaden texture) and carefully monitored cooking time (if the balls are cooked too long they will lose their toothsome quality). She sometimes adds grated fresh ginger or even cilantro for flavor.

Food writer and restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton favors a slightly solid center, surrounded by a more fluffy exterior: "I like to feel the matzoh balls against the spoon, but I hate when they are hard and gummy." Her secret? Enough fat to produce a silken texture but not so much that the balls are greasy.

Jack Lebewohl, owner of Manhattan's Second Avenue Deli, tries to be diplomatic: "You prefer what you're used to," he asserts. His landmark restaurant has been serving its trademark enormous, fluffy, golden matzoh balls to legions of fans since his brother Abe opened it in 1954, using their mother's recipes. But even Jack has his strong opinions: He insists that schmaltz is the only appropriate fat, joking that matzoh balls made with butter or oil are "assimilated."

With such conflicting advice, the only thing to do is decide for yourself. To this end, I organized a tasting by the Epicurious editors, for which I prepared recipes by Nathan, Sheraton, and Abe Lebewohl, as well as a vegetarian version of my own invention. Since I wanted a level playing field, I chose recipes that hewed to the basics of the genre. No fancy additions here-the most exotic of the ingredients was parsley. The differences were subtle: various ratios of fat and liquid to matzoh meal, beating the egg whites separately, using butter instead of chicken fat. But they produced surprisingly varied results-when tasted side by side, there were clear differences.

The results were, of course, affected by individual preferences. Not all of us agreed on the qualities inherent in the ideal matzoh ball. We tasted, and argued, and tasted some more. In the end, we were able to reach some general conclusions. For our favorite recipes and tips, read on.

General Tips

Our top two recipes, my vegetarian version and the Second Avenue Deli's more traditional one, were very different. However, we were able to draw a few conclusions about how to achieve desirable qualities. Here are the tasters' tips for top-notch matzoh balls:

Neither Water Nor Seltzer Contributes Anything Positive

Cooking the vegetarian matzoh balls in broth instead of water added flavor.
Cooking the vegetarian matzoh balls in broth instead of water added flavor.

Both the top two recipes contained no water or seltzer. Those that used liquid were judged more greasy, even though they did not have the most fat, leading us to conclude that the liquid kept the fat from combining properly with the matzoh meal.

Flavor Can Be Built Two Ways
In my vegetarian version, adding onion and cooking the balls in vegetable broth instead of water made up for the missing flavor from chicken fat. The Second Avenue Deli's version comes by its flavor the more traditional way, through the delicate but delicious combination of chicken fat and toasty matzoh meal. Which method is better depends on personal preference.

Texture Can Be Built Two Ways
The most popular results were produced by my recipe, which used plenty of stiffly beaten egg whites to add fluffiness, but rolled the balls to make them slightly compact. Alternatively, the Second Avenue Deli's balls had fewer eggs, which allowed the delicious chicken fat/matzoh flavor to shine through, but required baking powder and extremely light handling for texture.

Related: Matzoh Taste Test

Building Blocks

Two elements are considered by many to be essential to a good matzoh ball: schmaltz and chicken soup. Here's the lowdown:

This traditional staple in Eastern European Jewish kitchens is made by cooking pieces of chicken skin and fat with onions until the bits of skin (cracklings) and onion are crisp and brown. The browned pieces, called grebenes, are strained out, leaving the melted fat, which is cooled and used in place of butter, both in recipes and as a spread on bread, for meals where meat is to be served. This avoids the pairing of meat and dairy, which would conflict with kosher dietary laws. Grebenes are delicious as a snack or sprinkled on top of chopped liver and other dishes.

Making schmaltz is not difficult: The Second Avenue Deli's recipe is at right. If you cook whole chickens fairly often, save the fat and a few pieces of skin in your freezer until you have enough for a large batch. The finished schmaltz can also be frozen; when you need a small amount for cooking, simply chip it off with a knife.

If you are short on time, you can purchase chicken fat already rendered from kosher butchers and some grocery stores. Look for it in jars in the refrigerated or frozen foods section. Use it as is, or enhance the flavor by adding chopped onions, browning them, and straining.

Chicken Soup
Otherwise known as "Jewish penicillin," a good chicken stock is to most people the essential vehicle for matzoh balls. The Second Avenue Deli's recipe is at right. If you prefer not to make your own, you can "fake it" using purchased chicken stock; look for one with less sodium and fewer additives for a more natural flavor. Adding dill or other fresh herbs and cooked vegetables such as carrots will also increase the flavor.

For vegetarians, or those who keep kosher and wish to serve the soup with dairy, vegetable broth can be substituted. Try the recipe at right, or use vegetable bouillion cubes, which make a surprisingly good broth.

The Winning Recipe: Vegetarian Matzoh Balls

This recipe uses stiffly beaten egg whites to lighten the texture.
This recipe uses stiffly beaten egg whites to lighten the texture.

Key Elements:
• Uses butter instead of chicken fat
• No water or seltzer
• Includes grated onion
• Cooked in vegetable stock instead of water

The Verdict:
Surprisingly to some, these vegetarian balls were the winner. Adding onion, cooking the balls in vegetable stock, and using plenty of salt combined to produce a deep, "almost meaty" quality that was preferred by the majority of tasters. (Though a minority found them a bit overwhelming and suggested cooking them in water so more of the matzoh flavor would come through.) "Sinker" and "floater" fans alike were united on the texture, enjoying the "slightly firm middle and fluffier outside."

• 4 large eggs, separated
• 1 teaspoon salt
• Dash cayenne pepper
• 2 teaspoons white onion, grated
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
• 3/4 cup matzoh meal
• 7 cups vegetable stock
• Additional stock for serving

In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites until they hold stiff peaks; set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, salt, cayenne pepper, onion, and butter. Fold the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture until just combined. Gently fold in the matzoh meal in several additions. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate one hour.

In a large pot, bring the vegetable stock to a boil. Moisten hands with cold water and roll the matzoh mixture into 3/4 inch balls. After all the balls are formed, drop them into the boiling stock. Return to a boil, then reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon. Serve warm in vegetable stock.

The matzoh balls can be served in the same stock they were cooked in, but the soup will be cloudy. If you do use separate stock for serving, you can cook vegetables such as carrots or parsnips in it and serve them with the soup.

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