What do you put in your matzo balls?
How often have I heard this question? How often have I asked it? Years ago my sister took on the mantle of family matzo ball-maker, and the secrets of her light and fluffy ones were unknown to me. I mean, I knew about the most common tricks—baking powder, seltzer, guilt-inducing self-sacrifice—but having never tried them out myself, I didn't have a clue which would truly make a difference. For a long time I was content to be merely an opinionated matzo-ball eater, but this year I decided it was time to learn what really goes into the best matzo balls by making scores of my own, isolating the most common variables to find out what each one does.
The funny part is, after all this recipe testing, what I've learned is that there's really not much to it. It's easy to make any kind of matzo ball, whether you want dense sinkers, airy floaters, or anything in between. There are some important details along the way, but before I get to those, I want to jump straight to the most important part: When it comes to baking powder and seltzer, there's no right or wrong, because they both work well. The only question is what you want your end result to be.
Here's the method breakdown:
- Want sinkers? Don't use seltzer or baking powder.
- Want floaters with substance? Use seltzer or very little baking powder (between 1/4 and 1/2 teaspoon per cup of matzo meal).
- Want lovely, light floaters? Use more baking powder (between 1/2 and 1 teaspoon per cup of matzo meal) or a combination of seltzer with less baking powder (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon).
- Want matzo balls so light you can attach strings and use them as balloons? Fold in stiffly beaten egg white, then also add seltzer and baking powder.
Now let's look at the specifics.
Sinkers or Floaters: Here's What You Need to Know
Some people like dense, heavy matzo balls. Some people like light, fluffy ones. The important thing to understand is that your preference here influences not just the texture, but also the flavor of the matzo balls.
Dense matzo balls taste more of the matzo itself (and also schmaltz—rendered chicken fat—if you've used it). Light matzo balls have more air pockets, and are therefore able to absorb more broth, which means they will taste more of the broth. The lightest matzo balls will taste almost entirely of broth, with a very subtle matzo flavor. Personally, I like a middle ground where the matzo ball manages to retain some of its own identity while absorbing enough liquid to be infused with moisture and brothy flavor.
I started my tests using the basic ratio of matzo meal, egg, liquid, and fat given on the box of Streit's Matzo Meal that I was using: for every egg they call for 1/4 cup matzo meal, 1 tablespoon fat, and 1 tablespoon liquid. This ratio is very common, and most recipes I found either follow it exactly or only deviate by a small amount. Which makes sense—it works very well and it's capable of producing a wide variety of matzo ball textures.
But by itself, it produces a dense matzo ball. As you add seltzer and/or baking powder, the matzo balls become lighter and lighter. Given the range of textures I was able to successfully produce using this ratio, I stuck with it throughout, and have used it in my final recipe.
Do Matzo Balls Need a Nap?
Most matzo ball recipes say to refrigerate the mixture before forming into balls and poaching. To find out just how essential that step is, I tried cooking some immediately after making the mixture, while others I let rest in the refrigerator for a half hour before forming and poaching them.
This is an easy one: You have to rest your matzo-ball mixture before cooking. Just look at the difference between the mixture when it's fresh:
And now look at it after it's been refrigerated for a half hour:
This is a simple issue of hydration. Specifically, the matzo meal needs time to absorb the liquid. It's almost impossible to form balls when it's still fresh, and even if you do, they won't hold together in the water. Here's the proof:
It's not pretty, is it? Matzo balls need their beauty sleep.
For our basic matzo-ball ratio, we have one egg, a quarter cup matzo meal, one tablespoon of fat, and one tablespoon of liquid. Exactly what that liquid is, though, is flexible. It could be water, for instance, which would make a denser matzo ball, or it could be chicken broth, which would add nominally more flavor than water with a similarly dense texture.
OR you can add carbonated water, which in theory aerates the dough (if you own a siphon, you could also carbonate broth, though that seems a little excessive to me).*
* Don't try carbonating broth in a SodaSteam-type device unless you want to void your warranty.
I tried out the seltzer, comparing it to plain, seltzer-free matzo balls, and it worked really well, lightly aerating the matzo balls to create "floaters" that still have some substance to them. This method hits closest to my own personal preference, yielding matzo balls that are light and moist, but still substantive enough to have some heft and a clear matzo flavor. If I have seltzer available, it's what I'd use as my default.
Next up, the chemical leavening properties of baking powder (somehow, magically, not in violation of the prohibition against leavenings for "kosher for Passover" foods, at least according to many, if not all, Jews—I'm not a rabbi, I can't explain this).
I looked at a lot of recipes using baking powder, and found 1/4 teaspoon per 1/4 cup of matzo meal (using our basic ratio) to be pretty common. I tested it out. And boy did it work. Look at a matzo ball with that amount of baking powder alongside a matzo ball without:
If you want an ethereal matzo ball, this is it. It's light and it's airy. It doesn't just float—it's practically a certified life-saving buoyancy device. Perhaps one day you'll find this type of matzo ball under your airplane seat.
For me, a full 1/4 teaspoon per 1/4 cup of matzo meal is a little too much. I'd scale it back to just a pinch or 1/8 teaspoon to get the texture I'm after. On the flip side, if you want even lighter matzo balls, you can double down by using both seltzer and the full payload of baking powder. The risk there is that they'll be soft to the point of mushiness, but if that's your jam, I'm not gonna stop you.
Beaten Egg Whites
If you've studied matzo ball recipes enough, you've probably come across some that call for separating out some portion of the egg whites, beating them until stiff, and then folding them into the mix.
I tried it out, quadrupling the basic ratio to a full cup of matzo meal, four eggs, and 1/4 cup each fat and liquid (this makes a recipe that I'd say serves four). Of the four eggs, I separated out two whites and beat them until stiff, ultimately folding those beaten whites into the remaining ingredients.
The resulting matzo balls are certainly light, but they have a quality that I'd describe as elastic and springy, almost bordering on rubbery. I can imagine learning to like this texture, but it's not exactly my platonic ideal of a matzo ball.
Ultimately, considering all the extra work involved, I don't think it's worth it. But if you're determined to make the lightest matzo balls in the land, you could go ahead and use this technique in combination with seltzer and baking powder.
The Fat: Do You Need Schmaltz?
The Jews of Northern and Eastern Europe had a fat conundrum: They were living in a land of butter and lard, but couldn't use those ingredients in much of their cooking. Rendered poultry fat, from chickens, ducks, and geese, became a staple of their kitchens. The fat, known as schmaltz, is, in its most basic form, just that: rendered poultry fat. Often, though, onions are also added to the rendering process for flavor, then strained out along with the gribenes (crispy poultry fat cracklin's) before use.
My preferred method for making schmaltz is to save up a bunch of chicken fat, storing it in the freezer until I have a healthy amount; the more tender globules found around the neck and at the entrance to the chicken's cavity are best, but skin works too. Then I chop it up, put it in a saucepan with a little water, and cook it, stirring frequently, until most of the fat has liquified with little crispy bits of fat and skin floating in it and the water long gone. I add sliced or chopped onion towards the end for flavor (adding it sooner just means you have to contend with it sticking and burning). Then I strain it out. (Those fried cracklin's and onion are good for snacking, so don't just throw them out.) I get about one cup of rendered fat from three-quarters of a pound of skin and fat, though yields will vary depending on the ratio of skin to fat.
Schmaltz was certainly the typical fat in the matzo balls of the Old World, and many cooks still swear by it today. Today, though, vegetable and canola oils are often used for convenience. So, just how important is that chicken fat?
Well, side-by-side taste tests proved that it's pretty valuable to the flavor of the matzo balls, especially when the schmaltz is made with onion. It's just fantastically rich stuff, and the matzo balls are all the better for it. I may have been imagining it, but I also thought the matzo balls made with schmaltz were more tender than their vegetable-oil counterparts.
That said, if schmaltz is going to be the deciding factor between making matzo balls and not, go ahead and skip it. The vegetable oil ones may not be quite as good, but they're still plenty delicious.*
* And yet here I feel the need to invoke some classic Jewish guilt. Don't you want to know what your ancestors went through to make delicious matzo balls worthy of the Passover table? Don't you want your house to smell like love? Don't you want your mother to be proud of you? Make the schmaltz, my friend, make the schmaltz...or at least see if your local butcher sells it.
Extra Flavor: Choosing Your Poaching Medium and Seasonings
Okay, now we get down to the wire. It's matzo-ball cooking time and we have some options. Let's start at the beginning: Matzo balls are served in chicken broth. For a really nice presentation, that broth should be clear, not cloudy. Yet matzo balls have a tendency to make the liquid they're poached in cloudy. If you don't care about that, go ahead an poach directly in the broth you're going to serve.
If you do care about the broth not being cloudy, though, you have to choose between poaching in an entirely separate batch of broth (which means making a bigger batch of broth—a pain in the tuchus), or using water. Does it matter?
You bet it does!
Matzo balls are nothing more than spherical sponges, and the lighter and airier they are, the more effective they are at soaking up fluid. Cook matzo balls in water, and you're going to end up with watery, bland matzo balls. I know, because I tried it. Even if you cook them in water and then give them a nice long soak in broth before serving, they still end up with much less flavor.
If there's one hard-and-fast rule I'll stand by for good matzo balls, it's that they need to be cooked in chicken broth. The richer and more flavorful that broth is, the better—this is not a time for store-bought stock. Start by making a big batch of good chicken stock. You can use that stock as your soup base, but for an even more intense flavor, take the stock and poach a whole chicken in it with even more aromatic vegetables. Then strain that out (saving the chicken meat for something else, like a salad, or shredding it into the soup if you prefer).
Once they've been poached in broth, transfer them to the clear, fresh broth you'll be serving. I usually also add some freshly diced aromatic vegetables like carrot and celery to the final broth, cooking them just until tender, instead of serving the broth with the mushy, long-cooked vegetables that were used to flavor it. Dill in my book is a must.
This brings up one last question: Should you add flavorings like onion and garlic powder to the matzo balls? I won't go as far as to say you shouldn't, because it doesn't exactly taste bad, but those flavors have a tendency to lack nuance. I'd much more strongly encourage you to make a really good broth, poach the matzo balls in it, and let it add all the onion and garlic flavor you want.
Can I Open the Pot?
I've read a few recipes that plead with the reader not to uncover the pot at all while the matzo balls simmer, lest some terrible fate befall them. I was skeptical, so I set up three pots, one of which I left uncovered the whole time, one of which I opened every ten minutes or so during the hour-long simmer, and one that remained covered the entire time.
Below are my results. From left, we have the always-covered matzo ball, then the frequently uncovered matzo ball, and finally the never-covered matzo ball.
As you can see, the matzo ball that was never covered failed to swell as much, and developed an unsightly brown color where it was exposed to air. Clearly, matzo balls need to be covered.
But I saw no significant difference between those matzo balls that were cooked covered the entire time and those that had their lid lifted during the cooking process. As far as I can tell, there's not much risk to uncovering the pot for short periods if you desperately feel the need to peek inside.
Getting the matzo balls you've always dreamed of isn't nearly as tricky as it seems. With a basic ratio of matzo meal to egg, fat, and liquid, a little seltzer and/or baking powder, and a truly killer broth, you're going to be the envy of the matzo-eating land.
Just tell anyone who asks that it's a little too complicated to explain. After all, we all need a little mythology in our lives.
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