I have a letter from my great-uncle Shush in which he lists some of the more exotic foods from his Jewish childhood home, each accompanied by commentary. It includes Yiddish terms* like miltz ("A flat slab of low-end cow innards, much resembling a chunk of slivery, pulpy liver.... I dare say that I would never knowingly offer this to a dinner guest"); p'tcha ("It was to me a plate-sized aspic filled with indigestible chunks of God-knows-what and slices of hard-boiled eggs"); lungen ("What can I tell you except that this was the lungs of a cow and was not only repulsive to me in taste but appalling in appearance"); and eiter ("A by-product, it seemed, of cut-up snow tires whose tread had long since eroded").
Shush and his siblings grew up in a house in which they heard Yiddish daily, and they had some level of comprehension, but didn't know how to speak or write it themselves; some of these terms may be unusually transliterated as a result.
What was not on Shush's list was chopped liver. I can only assume this is because among most Ashkenazi Jews in those days, chopped liver was well within the bounds of what would have been considered normal and delicious. It was likely inconceivable within that community to think of it as a repulsive culinary outlier—no stranger than a beef hot dog or pastrami sandwich would be to us today.
Unfortunately, it's all too common nowadays to meet people, many of them Jewish, who grimace and wrinkle their noses at the mention of chopped liver. Among traditional Jewish foods still eaten today, only gefilte fish elicits greater derision (and that wasn't on Shush's list either, for the record). It saddens me to see a food as great as chopped liver lose ground, as fewer and fewer people seem willing to eat it. It deserves all the respect in the world—after all, it's likely what French foie gras comes from.
What Is Chopped Liver?
Chopped liver is an incredibly simple thing. It involves few ingredients: chicken livers, hard-boiled eggs, onion, and some kind of fat. ("Some kind of fat" is actually being a bit too flexible—it really needs to be rendered chicken fat, called schmaltz in Yiddish; more on that below.) Seasonings are salt and pepper, period.
The result is an addictive, complex dish—there’s the rich, funky liver, of course, but it’s layered with the sweetness of sautéed onions and the buttery poultry flavor of the schmaltz. The egg, meanwhile, adds tenderness while diluting the intensity of the liver. It's not exactly silky or smooth, but it is soft and spreadable, perfect for schmearing on matzo, crackers, or crusty bread.
In truth, chopped liver wasn't always made with chicken livers. According to Claudia Roden's The Book of Jewish Food, it originated with the 17th-century Jewish community in what is now the French region of Alsace.
Unable to use pork and lard due to kosher practices, Alsatian Jews turned to geese as a source of meat and fat; in fact, they were responsible for popularizing the force-feeding method that produces the fattiest, richest, most delicious livers. They chopped those fatty livers into a spread, a practice that the French picked up and turned into pâté de foie gras, which can be literally translated to "fat liver paste."
But the dish wasn't embraced by the French alone. It was adopted by many other Ashkenazi Jewish communities throughout Europe, who substituted the goose liver with various other kinds. Apparently, even veal liver was a popular choice in the UK until it became too costly. In the end, chicken liver won out, and that's the liver most of us expect when we talk of the dish now (though if you have access to enough goose liver, by all means try it the old Alsatian way).
Testing Chopped Liver Techniques
The key to great chopped liver comes down to a few basic decisions about how to prepare each ingredient. Never one to take others' words for it, I put just about every major variable to the test.
How to Cook the Liver
First up is determining how to cook the livers themselves. This is more complicated than it may seem to the uninitiated, since there are kosher laws that govern how the liver needs to be prepared. Of course, those of us who don't keep kosher don't necessarily need to follow those laws, but a good chopped liver recipe should keep them in mind, given that the dish has Jewish origins and may well be prepared or consumed by kosher folks.
I'm not in any way an expert on keeping kosher, but my understanding is that because livers are seen as containing a lot of blood, traditional koshering methods for meat aren't considered sufficient. The livers must be cooked in such a way that their juices can drain off immediately, which means that searing them in a pan or other vessel is forbidden.
These days, most home cooks take advantage of their ovens, setting the livers on a slotted broiler pan, or a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet, and running them under the broiler, so that the juices can drip down as the livers cook. Broilers are a fairly modern invention, so before they came around, the livers were usually grilled. (To be clear, a broiler is really just an inverted grill, with the heat coming from above instead of below.)
I decided to test grilling versus broiling, and out of curiosity, I tested a seared version as well, since I don't personally keep kosher and wanted to see how it stacked up.
There's no one right answer here. My favorite livers were the grilled ones, which developed some lovely charred spots over the hot charcoal—a deeper roasted flavor that was detectable in the final chopped liver. Successful grilling, of course, assumes the grill is hot enough. If you build a good charcoal fire, that's easy, but some gas grills may not have the output you need to really make grilling worthwhile.
The broiler was by far the easiest method, but, like gas grills, broilers can vary in their power output. A good broiler can do a good job so long as the livers are positioned close to the heating element, but some home ovens have weak broilers that will fail to ever properly sear the livers, leading to lackluster results. The livers will cook through, but they'll be about as tasty as if they were steamed.
Searing in a skillet is, as I mentioned, against kosher rules, but for those of us who don't keep kosher, it is technically an option. It's also a good one. You can get great browning on livers in a smoking-hot skillet, which makes it a better choice, so far as flavor is concerned, than a weak gas grill or broiler. If you do go that route, just make sure you don't offer the chopped liver to anyone who might assume it was made following more traditional kosher methods, unless you warn them first.
No matter which method you choose, make sure that when you're cooking the livers, you take them beyond the pink centers one often aims for when making a French liver pâté. For chopped liver, you want them a bit more well-done: When chopped, the paste should be brown and slightly crumbly, not pink and soft. The secret to a good, spreadable texture comes from additional fat, not from less-cooked livers.
How to Cook the Onions
Once upon a time, the onions in chopped liver were raw, but that's hardly, if ever, how they're prepared now. Today, the debate rages over just how much to cook them: Do you sauté them until they're tender but without much color, or do you go for a more deeply caramelized, sweet result?
Traditionalists will argue that super-sweet caramelized onions have no place in chopped liver, and I tend to agree. But this really is a question of taste, and where you fall on the sweetness spectrum is a personal matter.
One thing I do not support is the addition of any sugar beyond what the onions themselves might bring. Chopped liver is not dessert.
After tasting both the browned and the not-browned batches, I decided to have it both ways by sautéing the minced onion until it's soft, removing about half, then continuing to cook the rest until it's browned. That provides a low-level sweetness and roasty depth, without crossing too far into the sugar zone.
The Schmaltz Showdown: Choosing a Fat for Chopped Liver
Originally, chopped liver that was made with fatty goose liver would have been mixed with goose fat, but with the adoption of chicken livers came rendered chicken fat. Schmaltz is the term used for that. Technically, it's a generic term for rendered animal fat of any type, but when you're talking about Ashkenazi Jewish food, schmaltz is generally understood to be made from chicken fat unless otherwise specified.
Beyond just rendering chicken fat, though, making schmaltz usually also involves frying onions in the fat during the rendering process. The result is much more delicious than chicken fat alone, and also yields what are known as gribenes: the browned and crispy bits of fat and onion left over after the schmaltz has been made.
Still, there's no doubt that making schmaltz from scratch—which is pretty much the only way to go, since it's not commonly sold at markets—is a bit of a process. First, you need to save up or buy enough chicken fat to make the schmaltz, and then you have to go through the rendering process, which takes about an hour. The reward, though, is arguably worth it.
Or is it?
Lots of people have switched to using a neutral vegetable oil in place of schmaltz, because it's significantly easier. They don't seem to think the schmaltz is worth the trouble.
I made batches of chopped liver using schmaltz, vegetable oil, and also duck fat, to see how they compared. The duck fat was a potential shortcut I wanted to try out, my hope being that a more commonly available rendered poultry fat might make a good stand-in.
As it turned out, it didn't. The duck fat was far too overpowering, adding a funky, intensely greasy duck flavor that overshadowed everything else.
The vegetable oil landed on the other end of the spectrum, adding absolutely nothing. It wasn't bad, but it also wasn't much of anything at all—and in a dish as simple as chopped liver, that's a problem.
There's no contest here: The schmaltz is the transformative ingredient that makes chopped liver far more than mere chopped liver. Plus, you get the gribenes on top of it, which you can mince up and add to the mix, and/or sprinkle on top as a garnish.
Exactly how much schmaltz you add is up to you. I mix in just enough to give the chopped liver, which starts out on the dry side, a moist and spreadable texture. The quantity will depend on how dry your chopped liver mixture is to begin with, and just how loose and spreadable you want to make it.
The last test was mincing the livers and hard-boiled eggs. In the olden days, this was done by hand or with a food grinder. Today, most folks opt for the convenience of a food processor.
I tried all three methods and, for once, found myself leaning toward the shortcut: The food processor did a great job. As long as you don't run the processor too long, it can produce a crumbly mash that's almost identical to the grinder version. Hand-chopping, meanwhile, was too tedious even for me, and I'm a guy who usually opts for finely dicing pounds of vegetables for ragù, instead of mincing it all in the food processor in a matter of seconds.
Will this recipe for chopped liver convert the doubters? Hopefully a few, but I won't fool myself—people are set in their ways. Instead, perhaps I should use this as an opportunity to teach myself to love something even my great-uncle Shush never could. Cow's lung, I'm coming for you.