If you’ve eaten much matzo ball soup, you know there’s a sacredness to it. The richness of the broth and the way it sits full-bodied on the spoon. How the matzo balls, saturated just enough to be plush but resilient, dole out the concentrated liquid they’ve absorbed with each bite. The meaty shreds of chicken and chunky vegetables, both reminders that this is cozy, nourishing home cooking. And the way, when you’re hunched over a bowlful, inhaling the savory steam, you can tell that someone fussed over this. That they distilled meat, vegetables, and aromatics down to this golden, schmaltz-anointed elixir; seasoned, formed, and poached the dumplings just so—and you are the beneficiary.
It’s a visceral experience, Michael Solomonov told me when we spoke on the phone about his lifelong love of matzo ball soup. The Israeli-born chef/owner of several acclaimed Philadelphia restaurants, including Zahav, rhapsodized about the purity of the broth, the alleged bronchial-healing effect of chicken fat, and the “magical pairing” it makes with cinnamon, which his mother uses to season her matzo balls. “There’s an emotional response you get when eating this dish,” he said.
Cooks feel that connection too. Tending the soup pot and rolling the dumplings are meditative acts that bring as much comfort and joy as serving and eating it. And the smell of matzo ball soup on the stove is unmistakable and intoxicating, like a savory mist that wafts throughout the house for the benefit of everyone around it.
Science: Floaters versus Sinkers: Have It Your Way
Whether a matzo ball should sink or float in its broth has always been the subject of lively debate, but it needn’t divide your guests. You can make the dumplings in this recipe either way simply by controlling how much time they spend in the cooking liquid.
Matzo balls tend to float initially because dough made from matzo meal (cooked cracker crumbs) has a naturally loose structure with tiny pervasive pockets. In fact, the crumb of these matzo balls is so open that they will float whether or not you add baking powder or seltzer—leaveners that will open up their texture even more—and will do so for a good 30 minutes. If you like them buoyant and with a hint of tender chew at the center, fish them out at this point and serve them promptly.
If they poach for much longer, edging closer to 45 minutes, the starch in the matzo meal and those tiny pockets will soak up so much liquid that the matzo balls’ density exceeds that of the soup they’re sitting in. The upshot: They’ll be wonderfully juicy, but they’ll also lose buoyancy and sink.
“It just kind of wraps itself around the hallways and gets in the closets,” said Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a Jewish food expert and co-founder/owner of the Gefilteria, a New York–based company that’s reimagining and teaching about Ashkenazi cuisine.
For Yoskowitz and Solomonov, that scent is also the one that signals the Jewish holidays, especially Passover and the intricate seder meal. The making of matzo ball soup happens a little differently in each cook’s kitchen, but it’s arguably the most unifying preparation in the Jewish canon.
“People make matzo ball soup as part of their family ritual, religious or not, in hundreds of different places in the world at essentially the same time,” Solomonov said. “It’s a ceremonious sort of act that is bigger than you, and you are continuing a tradition.”
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Make Your Own Tradition
Since matzo ball soup preferences are personal, I made this recipe modular. You can cook it in its entirety or incorporate a portion into your own recipe. There are also options for tweaking the flavor and texture of the matzo balls (following the recipe as written will produce the lightest texture), and for garnishing the finished soup.
MATZO BALL TEXTURE
- More Fluffy: Add optional ½ teaspoon baking powder
- Less Fluffy: Omit baking powder; replace seltzer with water
MATZO BALL FLAVOR
Season the dough by stirring one of the following into the dry ingredients:
- For subtly spicy warmth: Add a pinch of nutmeg
- For fragrant warmth: Add ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- For box-mix savoriness: Add ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- Fresh herbs (dill, parsley)
- Black pepper
- Crispy chicken skin
A Chicken in the Pot
Matzo balls can be floated in any number of soups, but the most iconic pairing is with a clear, deeply chicken-y broth that’s subtly sweetened by root vegetables and often fragrant with warm spices and fresh dill. To make mine, I broke down a whole bird into parts that fit snugly into a Dutch oven, minimizing the amount of water necessary for covering the meat and, thus, the simmering time to concentrate the broth. Separating the breast and leg quarters also meant that I could remove the white meat as soon as it hit 160 degrees, keeping it moist, while leaving the collagen-rich dark portions, wings, and backbone to simmer until that meat was tender and the liquid flavorful and full-bodied. Chopped carrot, celery, and onion (skin-on, so its natural pigments deepened the color of the broth) added sweet, round depth.
How Big Matzo Homogenized Matzo Ball Soup
Matzo balls weren’t always so spherical and fine-textured, or so widely made. They’re descendants of knödel, knobbly boiled dumplings that central and eastern European cooks cobbled together from whatever bread crumbs or potato they had on hand. And they were made only during Passover, from homemade or locally produced matzo that was cracked or otherwise unsuitable for the seder, so the size of the crumbs varied widely.
Only when big matzo companies such as Manischewitz and Streit’s mass-produced the unleavened bread did an iconic dumpling develop. Their machinery made a consistent product that was available year-round. As a by-product, they produced their own matzo meal too.
“Packaged matzo meal was an absolute game-changer in terms of making it very easy to produce matzo ball soup,” said Jonathan D. Sarna, university professor and Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.
As manufacturers often do, these companies promoted their product by printing matzo ball soup recipes on their packaging and in company-sponsored cookbooks. These formulas revolutionized the dish—for better or worse. They popularized it, making it one of the most recognizable preparations in the Jewish canon. But by making such a uniform and widely distributed product, they also eliminated some of the dumpling’s diversity.
As the water came to a boil, I skimmed the clumps of protein that floated to the surface to make the broth clearer. Fifteen or so minutes later, I plucked out the fully cooked breast portions to rest while I seasoned the broth with black peppercorns, a few sprigs of dill, and a couple cloves, and let it simmer gently for a little more than an hour. Then I strained the solids and set aside the rich, golden liquid while I mixed up the matzo balls.
On the Ball
Just about every batch contains the following: matzo meal; eggs; fat—ideally, schmaltz; water; and salt. All you do is whisk together the egg and schmaltz and then stir in the other components until the dough is cohesive. It’s pretty goopy at that point but firms up to a scoopable consistency after it chills in the fridge for 45 minutes or so, which gives the matzo meal a chance to hydrate and the fat time to solidify. Then you roll the dough into golf ball–size rounds and gently poach them in water and/or broth so that they plump up.
The texture of matzo balls, and whether they float or sink, are highly personal, hotly debated variables that can be controlled with ingredient ratios and cook times. The gist is this: Egg and matzo meal provide structure; fat, water, and leaveners (if any), tenderness. Scaling those components up or down is what makes the dumplings plush or firm, airy or tightly packed—or somewhere in between. And the longer the dumplings poach, the more liquid they’ll absorb. If they absorb enough, they’ll become denser than the broth they’re sitting in, and sink.
I happen to like my matzo balls tender and floaty, so I minimized the amount of eggs since their proteins can be a source of toughness; made sure to weigh the matzo meal because volume measurements can range widely; and added enough schmaltz to give the dumplings rich flavor and, as Yoskowitz put it, “velvety texture.” Then, to really tenderize the dough, I stirred in baking powder and swapped out the water for seltzer—common additions that open up the texture.
The poaching is typically done (or at least started) in salted water to avoid clouding and soaking up too much of the broth, but it’s nice to finish the dumplings in the soup so that they become saturated with chicken-y savor. My hybrid approach: 15 minutes in the water, then another 20 to 30 in the broth (longer if you want sinkers) at a bare simmer, lest a harder boil break them apart. I knew they were done when I cut one in half and squeezed it gently, and broth seeped out from the center.
Rendering chicken skin and fat to produce schmaltz has been done for centuries. Though it can be purchased at many supermarkets, it’s well worth making your own. All you do is cook chopped skin and fat in a nonstick skillet very gently and slowly—it takes roughly an hour—and then strain it. The golden fat can be used for anything from enriching matzo balls to sautéing vegetables or frying potatoes. Plus, it rewards you with outrageously good chicken cracklings. Eat them by the handful, or chop and sprinkle them on soup, salads, or noodles, or anything that could use a crunchy, savory burst.
To underscore the earthy sweetness of the broth and add some color, I simmered a little chopped carrot, celery, and parsnip in the soup as the matzo balls cooked. But whether or not the soup contains vegetables—or shreds of chicken, fresh herbs, or any other seasonings—is up to you. In fact, I wrote the recipe as modules to make it as flexible as possible: You can prepare all of the components or just one; adjust the consistency and flavor of the matzo balls as you like; and garnish it, or not. (Though I can’t let you go without making a plug for the crispy bits of skin leftover from rendering schmaltz; trust me, you want these in your bowl.)