I’ve welcomed the challenge of cooking traditional Jewish dishes for my wife since we’ve been married. I knocked challah out of the park the first time I tried it – one of the best breads I’ve ever baked. I made a dynamite brisket for Chanukah last year.
But matzo balls? That’s been more difficult. The first time I made them my wife said they were too hard to cut, and not fluffy enough. The second time I made them, I consulted with my wife’s Jewish grandmother – certainly an expert – and tried again. Still not fluffy enough.
When I planned to cook matzo ball soup for Passover this year, I told myself I would master a fluffy matzo ball. And guess what? I think I have. Here’s what I’ve learned …
The number of variables in play to fully test what makes a fluffy matzo ball is high. Possible things to consider when cooking matzo balls include:
- The fineness of the matzo meal
- The lightness of the eggs (whether the whites are whipped or not)
- The amount of oil used
- Whether a chemical leavener (baking powder or baking soda) is used
- How tightly the balls are formed
- The time the mixture sits before the balls are formed and cooked
- The cooking time
I didn’t have the time to test every single combination. I decided to keep the recipe constant (using pre-approved “lighteners” like whipping the egg whites and adding baking soda) and test what I thought had been least-explained in matzo ball recipes I saw online: The amount of time the dough sits. Most recipes call for the dough to rest, in the refrigerator, for 30 minutes. For example, this recipe says, “You need to put your mix in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. For centuries, Jews have been placing their matzo ball mix in the refrigerator – this is our deep, dark secret that ensures the matzo balls come out fluffy and perfect.”
My grandmother-in-law’s recipe – for fluffy matzo balls – calls for the mix to sit for only 10 minutes on the counter. Other recipes give a huge resting range – from 1 hour to overnight. I also wondered what would happen if I didn’t let the mixture rest at all. I decided to make three rounds of matzo balls: no resting time, 30 minutes resting time, and 2 hours resting time. On to the results!
I wanted to isolate the time variable, so I formed the matzo balls as gingerly as possible, with no squeezing. I dropped the balls in the boiling water and they began to swell instantly. I set the lid on the pot and didn’t peek for 25 minutes. When the timer beeped, I spooned the first matzo ball onto my plate … and instantly knew these weren’t going to be great matzo balls.
They had taken on too much water (note the pool of water on the plate), and the outer edges of the matzo balls weren’t fluffy, they were soggy. Plus, the balls had lost their round shape – instead they were like flattened ovals. Clearly the mixture had to set for some period of time. The question to answer: How much?
After 30 minutes in the fridge, I took the mixture out and shaped another three matzo balls. The change in consistency of the matzo dough was striking. It was much drier, and harder to handle. It was more difficult to shape the mixture into balls, especially when trying to squeeze them as little as possible. When I dropped them in the water, they didn’t expand nearly as quickly.
When I removed the second batch of matzo balls 25 minutes later, I knew these wouldn’t pass my wife’s spoon test. These were decidedly not fluffy. They hadn’t doubled in size (a requirement for any fluffy matzo ball), and take a look at the cross-section photo. This time there is a correctly-cooked outer ring and a dry interior.
I had inadvertently learned something important: The squeezing variable and resting time variable strongly affect each other. With the drier mixture it was harder to shape the matzo balls, which forced me to squeeze them more.
I knew these matzo balls weren’t going to be any good, but I was still curious to see what effect the longer resting time would have. It made the mixture even drier. This time I was more careful when shaping the balls to avoid squeezing them, but as you can see, the resulting shape isn’t really a ball at all – more like a matzo meteorite!
These balls didn’t swell much at all, and they fell apart when cut with a fork. From the photo of the cross-section you can see the texture was bad, too: crumbly and mealy, but also dry in thicker places.
This experiment gave me lots of great data, and I learned a ton. The mixture shouldn’t sit for very long, and you must have a very light hand when making the balls. But how long to let the matzo mixture sit? When I made matzo ball soup for my wife I went with my grandmother-in-law’s original instruction of 10 minutes resting at room temperature. As I was shaping the balls I knew this was the sweet spot: The mixture was easy to scoop, so I didn’t really have to do any shaping at all. The mixture had absorbed some of the moisture from the eggs, so water wouldn’t penetrate so quickly and make the balls soggy.
At dinner, my wife approved. I had finally made a fluffy matzo ball! Of course, testing of the other variables is required until we know exactly what makes a matzo ball the fluffiest. Next up on the list? Finding out if beating the egg whites or adding baking soda makes any difference. For now, here’s how to make a fluffy matzo ball:
- 1 cup plain matzo meal (Pre-packaged boxes often include extra spices. Check the ingredient list to make sure the meal is plain.)
- 4 eggs, separated
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or schmaltz (schmaltz is the rendered chicken fat that will rise to the top of homemade stock and congeal when you put it in the fridge)
Step 2. Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form.
Step 3. Add the yolks and oil to the whites, then fold in the dry ingredients. Fold just until the matzo meal has been incorporated.
Step 4. Let the mixture rest on the counter for 10 minutes.