Take a look at the chart below and you'll see that interest in "matzo ball" (at least as a Google search term) is at the highest in spring, during Passover.
Small peaks come in the fall, for the High Holidays, and the winter, for Hanukkah—which starts at the end of this week.
But to refrain from matzo ball soup for the majority of the year is a great loss. With spoon-tender, just-salty-enough dumplings that wobble in a broth as chicken- or vegetable-heavy as you like, it's a dish as comforting as they come—and the perfect snowy day dinner, regardless of whether you're celebrating Hanukkah.
Here's how to make whatever kind of matzo ball soup you want, whenever you want—whether you're going with vegetable stock or chicken stock or you prefer floaters, sinkers, or in-between-ers.
1. Make the best chicken or vegetable broth you can.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: A matzo ball is only as good as the broth it floats (or sinks, or bobs) in. If matzo ball soup is the planet (stick with me), the balls are the continents and the broth is the ocean, which may not look as important superficially, but is as vital—if not more so—to the health of the whole. If your broth's no good, what use are the matzo balls?
Follow these guidelines for making your stock...
...and keep the following in mind for matzo ball soup, specifically.
For vegetable stock...
- My vegetable stock tends to be either flavor-scarce or, depending on how many kale stems I've stockpiled in my freezer, dirt-forward. That's not a huge problem if I'm using it to cook beans or loosen soup—but when I want the stock to be my soup, I try to take a more strategic route to ensure it tastes good.
- I start by sautéeing chopped vegetables—like onions, carrots, celery, and parsnips—and slices of ginger and garlic in olive oil. I'll add dried mushrooms, too, if I've got them.
- When they've relaxed, I add peppercorns and herbs from the fridge. If you want to include the vegetables that have flavored the stock in the final soup, you can tie the herbs into a bouquet garni and tuck the peppercorns into an sachet. (Since I find the vegetables too mushy and strain the broth, I tend to leave my herbs and spices free-floating.)
- Then I add lots of salt, water, and—here's a tip I learned from my sister via Tori Avey—a pinch of saffron. The saffron gives the stock a golden-yellow hue and adds the savory depth that all-veg broth often lacks (cheese rinds can also help here, but they're often not kosher). For more techniques for making a pot of vegetarian soup taste special, head here.
- Simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until the soup has reduced and the broth is flavorful. You'll probably need to add more salt.
For chicken stock...
- Great news! Making chicken stock also provides the logical opportunity for using schmaltz as the source of fat in your matzo balls (see the next step for more about this)—but you'll want to do a bit of advance planning.
- If you'll be roasting or searing the chicken before adding water (like our Test Kitchen Chef Josh Cohen does), save the fat drippings from the roasting or frying pan.
- Or, if you're going to make the chicken stock using a whole, raw chicken (as Joan Nathan does), you can refrigerate the stock until the fat rises to the surface in a skimmable layer (at least 2 or 3 hours).
- And, if you'd like chicken shreds in the finished soup, you'll want to reserve some of the meat specifically for that purpose (otherwise, it will be cooked past optimal texture): You can either pull the breasts from the stock early and set them aside, as they do over at Bon Appétit, or roast off the chicken, shred and reserve the meat for the soup, then use the bones and other inedible parts to make stock.
2. When the broth is cooking (or chilling), make the matzo ball mixture.
If you forget the ratio, it's on the back of the Streit's Matzo Meal box. For enough matzo balls to serve 6 to 8, you'll need...
1 cup matzo meal + 4 eggs + 1/4 cup fat + 1/4 cup liquid
- Matzo meal: I've always used the store-bought, factory-processed stuff, but you can make your own in a pinch by grinding matzo in a food processor (it may not be as finely ground as the boxed version, however).
- Eggs: You understand these.
- Fat: For the most flavorful matzo balls, use the chicken schmaltz you've saved from making stock (you could even use duck fat, if you've got that around). Or, for the vegetarian (and pareve) route, use vegetable, coconut, or olive oil. (I've always stuck with vegetable.)
- Liquid: Here's where things go wild! You can use water or, for more flavor, some of the stock you've made. But, for fluffier matzo balls, you'll want to open a bottle of seltzer.
Which brings us to our...
The floating factor of your matzo balls will be determined by the type of liquid you use (still or sparkling) and the presence of baking powder and/or whipped egg whites. And despite the common discourse, you don't have to choose between light-as-air and heavy-as-bricks—there's a huge gradient in between. Daniel Gritzer of Serious Eats breaks it down this way:
- For sinkers, use water or stock (no seltzer; no leaveners).
- For what Gritzer calls "substantial floaters" (in-between-ers), use seltzer or a dash of baking powder (1/4 teaspoon per 1 cup matzo meal).
- For light floaters, use seltzer and baking powder.
- For balloons, mix in the seltzer and baking powder, then separate the eggs, stir in the yolks, stiffly beat the whites, and fold those in as well. Up, up, and away!
Once you've decided the textural fate of your matzo balls and assembled the ingredients, mix everything together and add salt and pepper and, if you'd like, dried herbs, minced fresh herbs, or spices. Joan Nathan, for example, seasons her matzo balls with ground nutmeg and ginger and finely chopped dill, parsley, or cilantro.
Cover the bowl, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
3. Shape and cook the matzo balls.
Use your hands to shape the matzo meal mixture (now firm and fairly easy to work with) into small balls—anywhere from the size of walnuts (with shells) to ping pong balls to golf balls, keeping in mind that larger matzo balls will take longer to cook.
Now, it's cooking time. You can either boil the matzo balls in salted water, as most recipes call for, or boil them in the stock itself. Boiling the balls in the stock will make your final soup cloudy but it gives the dumplings much more flavor—just think about how much liquid they're going to absorb: Will they taste better if that liquid is salt water or stock?
If you want to boil the matzo balls in stock but you still want the soup to be clear and cloud-free, you can divide the stock into two pots: Use one to cook the matzo balls—covered for twenty minutes to an hour, depending on the size of your dumplings and how tender you like them—and warm up the rest in a separate pot, for serving only.
That way, once the matzo balls are finished cooking, you can strain them from the cloudy broth and ladle the liquid from the pristine pot over top.
4. Add the extras.
Five to 10 minutes before you expect the matzo balls to be finished, add any bonus ingredients—chunks of carrot, celery, or potato and/or shreds of cooked chicken from your stock-making—to the pot that contains the broth you'll be serving. (That might be the pot where the matzo balls are cooking, or it might be a separate pot in which you've rewarmed all of the broth—if you're boiling the balls in salted water—or a part of it.)
5. Serve and garnish.
Fresh dill is the traditional matzo ball soup garnish, but no one is holding you to that (well, maybe Grandma). Any herbs that taste good fresh—cilantro, parsley, thyme included—are fair game here.
Or, for what may be an even more special treat, serve matzo ball soup for a regular old, body-warming weeknight dinner.
How do you like your matzo balls? And do you make them only for holidays or all year round, too? Tell us in the comments!