Living Below the Line: Schmalz

Nope, not the bad movie kind.  The kind where you embrace your Eastern European heritage and render chicken fat into liquid so that you have something other than water in which to caramelise your onions and garlic.

Yes, that does sound disgusting.  Try actually making it, that’s what I say.  Then you will know what disgusting looks like.

I’m finding it very hard to work without my olive oil.  I’m a Mediterranean girl at heart, and basically all my recipes start with ‘heat a tablespoon of olive oil…’.

Anyway, unable to afford oil, butter, or any other cooking fat in my budget, I had resigned myself to a depressingly low-fat lifestyle for the next few days – and then I had a brainwave.  One of those brainwaves you have in the middle of the night when you are lying awake wondering if you are actually hungry, or if you just think you are hungry because you know you are going to be hungry soon.  (Thanks, brain!)  But as I was lying there, I remembered this Jewish cookbook I had, and the recipe for schmalz, which sounded just as disgusting then as it does now, and though – wait!  I have a chicken wing!  With skin on it!  Aha!

So yesterday morning, as I started preparing my beans for the ribollita, I also decided to embark on schmalz.  I will spare you the gory details, other than saying that really, the only way to get skin off a chicken wing is to work your fingers between skin and flesh, and I’m sure you can take it from there.  Fairly visceral stuff.  And fascinating to the cat (who was very disappointed that none of this excellent chicken was finding its way into her terribly neglected tummy) (have I mentioned that I spent more on catfood this week than on human food?  The cats are not the ones with neglected tummies around here).


But yes, twenty minutes later, the house smelled like roast chicken (which is a terrible tease), and I had approximately half a teaspoon of chicken fat to cook with.  Luxury!


Of course, chicken fat is probably not the healthiest fat to cook in.  I suspect it’s right up there with lard and other rendered animal fats in the health stakes.  But beggars can’t be choosers, and one of the things that I’m definitely discovering for myself this week is that it’s really not easy to eat healthily on a poverty line diet.

Let’s take a quick tour through the NHMRC’s Australian Guide to Healthy Eating and see how we do (link goes to a PDF download, be warned)

Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties

Well, we have white bread and we have homebrand pasta made from white flour.  Neither of these things are particularly high in cereal fibre, but bread with actual whole grains in it cost nearly twice as much (at a minimum), and wholemeal or even durum wheat pasta cost at least three times what I spent, and probably more.  The pyramid also shows brown and white rice, rolled oats, polenta, quinoa, and various wholegrain cereals.  Of these, rolled oats might have fit into my budget (but would have cost about 1 1/3 times what the bread cost, not factoring in that the only place I could get it this cheaply was a tram-ride away from where I live), rice would have been affordable with a larger household, but was too expensive in smaller quantities, cereals are processed and expensive, polenta is too posh to be cheap and quinoa was out of the question…

I spent a total of $2.10 in this category, so I probably could have gone with a bit more in the way of higher-quality carbohydrates.  But that would have meant sacrificing…

Vegetables and Legumes / Beans

Legumes also appear in the protein section, so I’ll leave them for there.  We have a potato, a carrot, two onions, a beetroot with greens, a pumpkin, a capsicum, garlic, chilli, a celery stick, a cauliflower, tinned tomatoes, and a kilo of mixed frozen vegetables.  I spent $10.27 in this category, which makes it my most extravagant category by far, because I love my vegetables – and yet, to me, I feel like I still don’t have enough ‘real’ vegetables in there.

It was noticeable that tinned and frozen vegetables were a lot cheaper than the fresh kind in many cases – even though I was sticking to the vegetables that were cheapest at the cheapest of the greengrocers available.  But if I’d stuck to the cheapest frozen vegetables (a mixture of potato, carrot, peas and broccoli stems), I could have bought nine kilos of veg for the same amount of money.  Incidentally, I’m not sure how this can even make sense – surely there are labour costs going into frozen and tinned vegetables that don’t go into the fresh kind?  Or is it simply that transport costs for vegetables that you have to look after are that much higher than they are for frozen or tinned?

I haven’t found an academic site for this, but online sources suggest that frozen veg, at least, is as good for you as fresh; tinned, less so (due both to added salt and/or sugar, and the fact that is pre-cooked), and both, of course, lose more nutrients in the cooking/re-heating process.  Of course, those vegetables that one eats raw probably keep the largest amounts of nutrients (and we eat a fair number of our vegetables raw), and frozen won’t be able to compare with that.  I was not able to afford any salad vegetables anyway.  Not filling enough.

The biggest difference is probably in variety and quality – once one starts looking beyond broccoli stems, the cost of frozen food goes up dramatically, and becomes comparable with fresh.  Above that baseline, tinned veg becomes the cheapest, which is a pity, because it is the least nutritious of the three options.   And if one does eat the same four frozen vegetables all the time, one is only exposed to the nutrients from those particular vegetables.

Not too sure what the conclusion is here, but I can tell you for certain that we are eating far fewer vegetables and a much narrower variety than we would in an ordinary week.

Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes / beans

The grain and vegetable categories are each supposed to account for just under a third of our diet.  Proteins account for about 1/6, and I bought tuna, eggs, a chicken wing, cashews, chickpeas and borlotti beans for a total of $5.75.

Vegetarian proteins are reasonably affordable in this category – though I did find that beans, peas and lentils cost more than I expected.  I had hoped to get more, to be honest, but they were beyond my budget even in dried form.  Eggs were borderline, but tofu was well out of reach – per gram, it wasn’t much less than lean meat.  I didn’t actually look at red meat at all, and probably should have stuck to vegetarian options only, given my concerns about how meat animals are raised, but my suspicion is that mince *might* have fit into my budget if I was willing to streeeeetch it (probably with oats or white bread to make a meatloaf).  The lean cuts of meat and fish shown on the chart certainly wouldn’t do. And, while I was able to afford a small amount of tuna, the quality was pretty awful.  I did see a few ‘lunch meats’ and things like spam and tinned chicken that were almost within reach.  I have my doubts about their nutritional value – and I can’t imagine that any meat being stored at room temperature in a tin is not *full* of salt, either.

Dairy and Dairy substitutes

This category accounts for about 1/8 of the pie chart and was entirely out of my range, partly because of the five day limitation.  I bought nothing in this category – all the milks were too pricy (even UHT was not too cheap), and would require other ingredients to be used in cooking.  I looked high and low for yoghurt or cheese that was affordable, but no luck.  I’m guessing that calcium would be hard to come by on a budget like this – though if one were living on it in the long term, cheeses and yoghurts with good keeping qualities might be bought and eaten over several weeks, thus reducing their overall budget amount.  Provided one could save up for them in the first place.


Tinned is so much cheaper than fresh, which is so much cheaper than dried, which costs about the same as frozen.  I bought a tin of peaches and two apples, and spent $1.38.  Again, this seemed like a lot less fruit than we would normally eat, and I do question the nutritional value of tinned (and thus pre-cooked, often sweetened) fruit.  This would definitely come into the indulgence category, rather than representing 1/8 of the diet, as suggested

Butter and cooking oils

Well, you already know about that, really.  Margarine or copha were the cheapest options, and still not really in my range if I was budgeting for a single week.  I would note, of course, that in a longer term situation, these are items one probably would be able to afford and buy – there was no room in my budget this week for anything I wouldn’t eat in five days, and cooking oils and butters only come in larger portions than that.

(But yay, it’s cheap to be low fat, at least as far as cooking oils go!  Hmm…)

Snack foods


Things that aren’t on the chart

The chart doesn’t mention two minute noodles, or bottled sauces for pasta bakes or curries or chicken or, really, any pre-prepared foods other than tinned or frozen fruit and veg.  And while I didn’t wind up buying any of these things either, it would probably have been more economical to do so.  I was, for example, quite hung up on my cashew and cauliflower sauce idea as a way of getting a cheap and creamy sauce on my pasta.  In retrospect, though, this cost me $1.30 overall, and I probably could have found a cup-a-soup or bottled pasta bake sauce or tin of soup that would have provided the same effect for far less effort and a similar amount of money, especially if I’d been willing to use all frozen vegetables instead of the pumpkin and beetroot I added to the bake.  It’s entirely possible that it would have tasted better, too, with all those yummy, salty, cheesy preservatives.

It wouldn’t have been as good for us, nutritionally speaking, but with cost, convenience and taste in its favour, it would have been a very tempting option.  In fact, it’s tempting right now.  Why didn’t I think of that?

I have a feeling that over the next few days I will be demonstrating that one can eat healthily on $2 a day – but only if one is willing to spend about three times as much time in the kitchen (and corresponding amounts of money on gas/electricity for cooking) as one might if one went with the convenience options.  And how many people seriously have 2+ hours a day to spend in the kitchen?

And also, I might be being healthy, but I’m still hungry.  And even if that is just my brain playing games with me, it isn’t exactly fun…

If you are enjoying these articles, please consider sponsoring me by following this link!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

6 comments for “Living Below the Line: Schmalz

  1. Iestyn
    May 5, 2014 at 8:57 pm

    Bread and dripping with a little salt (and the roast juices) is good too. And making schmalz leaves a piece of crispy, protein filled chicken skin…. chefs perks.When I could get cheap (under $7/kg) skin on chicken breasts I’d rend off the schmalz to then fry the rest of the breast with a little sumac. Sandwich/roll/cracker meat for a week, and a treat when cooking it.

    • Catherine
      May 6, 2014 at 9:32 am

      Sounds lovely! Mum used to make chicken jelly after the roast – the juices would just jellify overnight, and she’d take off the fat (alas, poor schmalz!), and spread the jelly on toast instead of butter. I loved it. But I’ve never lived with anyone who didn’t find it revolting…!

  2. May 6, 2014 at 12:00 am

    Chicken fat is awesomely tasty. And honestly, I don’t think animal fat is really bad… everything in moderation and it’ll be fine!

    • Catherine
      May 6, 2014 at 9:30 am

      Half a teaspoon should be moderate enough!

  3. May 6, 2014 at 1:26 am

    If you make your own chicken broth, which is also a good frugal option, the schmaltz making process is quite painless.

    • Catherine
      May 6, 2014 at 9:30 am

      Ah, of course – it’s the fat you skim off the top after you chill it in the fridge overnight! I hadn’t thought of that. Though, with only one chicken wing worth of fat, I suspect there was never going to be a particularly easy way to harvest it…

      (In fact, chicken broth is on today’s menu – or at least, vegetable soup made with a chicken wing to flavour it, which amounts to the same thing…)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.