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Producing consistently light matzo balls takes time and the proper technique

Producing consistently light matzo balls takes time and the proper technique

At sundown on Saturday night, Jews all over the world will gather for the Passover Seder. Cookbook a

At sundown on Saturday night, Jews all over the world will gather for the Passover Seder, a special service that commemorates the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. But in my house, as the youngest child chants the familiar words of the Four Questions, I will probably be considering a different query: Will the matzo balls turn out to be light and fluffy, or heavy as lead?

My annual unease stems from the fact that the matzo balls floating in my chicken soup are notoriously uneven in quality. Some years, the traditional dumplings made from ground-up matzo are as airy as clouds. Other years, my husband says they should be packed up and sent to the NHL to be used as pucks.

But, because I use the same recipe year after year, it has become an increasingly puzzling predicament. Because the ingredients are always the same, it became apparent that there must be other factors that affect the outcome. I decided to investigate.

Technique and timing

According to cookbook author Risé Routenberg of Niskayuna, there are, indeed, a number of variables that can turn the delectable dumplings into leathery lumps. One important technique is the way the balls are formed. She recommends using a light touch when shaping the mixture into the traditional spheres.

Matzo ball tips

The experts recommend the following tips to help prepare the lightest, fluffiest matzo balls possible:

1. Form the balls lightly, with the palm of your hand. Don’t compress.

2. Let the mixture rest in the refrigerator for the exact time specified.

3. Cook until completely done. If there’s any doubt, cut one open to check.

4. If the mixture seems too stiff, add extra liquid.

5. Don’t crowd the cooking pot.

6. Bring the cooking liquid to a rolling boil before adding balls.

7. Keep them covered tightly. Don’t lift the lid to peek.

8. Cook the matzo balls in stock, or a mixture of stock and water.

“Use the palm of your hand, not your fingers,” Routenberg said. “If your batter is sticky, you can very, very lightly wet your hands. But absolutely no compacting!”

And the process can’t be rushed, she stressed. After the ingredients have been combined, it’s important to let the mixture rest in the refrigerator for the exact amount of time laid out in the recipe. If the mixture is used too soon, the matzo balls will fall apart in the cooking liquid. And if it rests too long, they could turn out tough.

“Don’t take shortcuts,” she said. “If you don’t have enough time to finish them, don’t start them.”

Barbara Wasser of Schenectady, who co-authored “Divine Kosher Cuisine” with Routenberg, agreed that speed can be the enemy of cooks who are bent on producing perfect matzo balls.

“I think people don’t cook them long enough,” she said. “They don’t let them get done all the way through. That has a tendency to make them heavy.”

If you’re not sure if the matzo balls are cooked through at the end of the allotted time, Routenberg said, take one out and cut it open. If it’s still dense in the middle or doesn’t look set, keep the rest of them cooking in the pot. But it’s better to keep them in too long than to take them out before they’re done.

“I have never seen an overcooked matzo ball,” she said.

Use own judgment

Gil Marks, author of “The World of Jewish Cooking,” agrees with all of Wasser and Routenberg’s tips. But he also said it’s important for cooks to use their own judgment when following a recipe. Temperature, humidity and the settling of ingredients in the box will all affect measurement. If the mixture of the matzo meal, eggs, liquid and fat seems very stiff, it’s OK to add more liquid.

“Look at the consistency of the mixture,” he said. “Remember, the moister the batter, the softer the matzo ball. If you want a soft matzo ball, don’t be sparing with the liquid.”

Another common mistake, Marks said, is to try to cook too many matzo balls at the same time. The dumplings need plenty of room to expand, and crowding will keep them from reaching their full potential of fluffiness.

Routenberg agrees. “Never overcrowd them. You’re better off using two pots.”

Another important factor in the cooking process is the temperature of the water. Marks recommends bringing the liquid to a rolling boil before gently dropping the dumplings in. Then, he said, reduce the temperature and keep the pot at a simmer. And lifting the lid during the cooking process can also make for tough matzo balls.

Many people believe that using seltzer instead of water in the matzo ball mix will help make it lighter. Although many experts disagree with this thesis, saying the bubbles are gone by the time the mixture is cooked, Marks said his experiments have confirmed the theory.

“Even if most of the carbonation is gone by that point, something seems to make it lighter,” he said.

Enhancing fluffiness

Anthony Benzinger, technical director at matzo manufacturer Aron Streit Inc. of New York, takes a somewhat different approach to the age-old problem. Instead of using plain matzo meal to make the dumplings, he recommends the company’s Matzo Ball Mix, which contains a leavening agent to make the matzo balls fluffier.

“My wife didn’t believe me at first,” Benzinger said. “But then she tried the mix and now she uses it every year. I tell everyone: ‘Use the mix.’ We formulate it to work; we test it; it works every time.”

But however the dumplings are made, he said, it’s important to use a cooking liquid that adds taste. Matzo balls boiled in water can be extremely bland. “Cook them in stock, for more flavor,” he said. “If you don’t have enough stock, use bouillon cubes.”

One ingredient that has been traditionally used in matzo balls, chicken fat or “schmaltz,” has been the subject of much controversy in these health-conscious times. Benzinger recommends using a mixture of the much-loved fat with oil, for a healthier, yet tasty, dumpling.

“Don’t use all oil or all chicken fat,” he said. “Chicken fat tastes better, but oil will make them lighter.

Routenberg and Wasser, the authors of “Divine Kosher Cuisine,” also address the “schmaltz” controversy. Their recipe for “No-Fail Matzoh Balls” calls for “veggie schmaltz,” a concoction of margarine, oil and aromatic vegetables.

“The first thing I make when I prepare Passover is a double recipe of veggie schmaltz,” Routenberg said. “I defy you to tell me it isn’t chicken schmaltz, because it cooks up and hardens to the same consistency. It smells like it, tastes like it. It’s just healthier.”

But whichever form of fat you decide to use in your matzo balls, remember, the quality of the finished product depends on more than the ingredients. According to the experts, if you use the proper technique for mixing, forming and cooking, you can come closer to producing the ideal matzo ball: tender, fluffy and flavorful.

At least, that’s what my family is hoping.

Veggie Schmaltz

This recipe is reprinted, with permission, from “Divine Kosher Cuisine,” by Risé Routenberg and Barbara Wasser. Sales of the book, available from www.divinekosher.com, benefit Congregation Agudat Achim in Niskayuna.

1 pound margarine

2 cups vegetable oil

2 large onions, chopped

2 large carrots, chopped

16 garlic cloves, chopped

Melt margarine and oil in saucepan. Add remaining ingredients and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally.

Cook until mixture turns golden brown. Remove from heat.

Strain out vegetables. Chill schmaltz. May be frozen.

Yield: 4 cups.

No-fail matzo balls

This recipe is reprinted, with permission, from “Divine Kosher Cuisine,” by Risé Routenberg and Barbara Wasser. Sales of the book, available from www.divinekosher.com, benefit Congregation Agudat Achim in Niskayuna.

1⁄2 cup Veggie Schmaltz or margarine, room temperature

3 large eggs

3⁄4 cup matzo meal

Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients with fork until well blended. Allow to stand 15 minutes.

Form into 16 balls, drop into large pot of gently boiling salted water and cover. Balls will double in size as they cook.

Cook about 50 minutes or until cooked through.

Passover matzo balls

This recipe is reprinted, with permission, from Aron Streit Inc. More recipes are available at www.streitsmatzos.com.

4 large eggs

1⁄4 cup water or seltzer

1⁄4 cup oil or melted margarine

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 pinch of pepper

1 cup matzo meal

Beat eggs. Add water, oil, salt and pepper. Mix well. Add matzo meal and stir thoroughly. Refrigerate for one-half to one hour.

Partially fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Moisten palms with cold water. Form mixture into balls about 1 inch in diameter. Drop matzo balls into boiling water.

When all the balls are in the pot, reduce heat to low. Simmer covered for about 30 minutes or until done. Remove with slotted spoon to a large bowl. Simmer the matzo balls for 15 minutes in your favorite chicken soup before serving.

Makes about 10 balls.

Khenaghi (Georgian walnut matzo balls)

This recipe is reprinted, with permission, from “The World of Jewish Cooking,” by Gil Marks (Simon & Schuster, 1996).

These Passover dumplings incorporate the Georgian favorite, walnuts.

2 cups finely ground walnuts

1⁄2 cup matzo meal

4 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 small yellow onion, finely chopped (about one-quarter cup)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano or parsley

Salt to taste

Ground black pepper to taste

2 large egg whites

Combine the walnuts, matzo meal, whole eggs, onion, oregano or parsley, salt and pepper. Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold into the walnut mixture.

Using moistened hands, shape the walnut mixture into 11⁄2-inch balls.

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the dumplings, stirring to prevent sticking, and cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon.

Serve warm in chicken soup, or at room temperature with narsharab (pomegranate sauce, see below).

Makes 18 to 24 dumplings.

Narsharab (pomegranate sauce)

2 cups pomegranate juice

2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 pinch of salt

Boil the pomegranate juice until reduced in half, about 15 minutes. Add the coriander, garlic and salt, and let cool. Makes about 1 cup.

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