Matzo Ball Soup is both quintessentially Jewish and a classic ubiquitous comfort food. Whether you serve this dish year-round or only at Passover, you’ll love creating this hearty soup from scratch in your home kitchen.
Traditional Matzo Balls and Homemade Chicken Stock
I cannot tell a lie. Until recently, I made matzo balls using the recipe on the side of my matzo meal can, never really knowing if they would sink or float or why. After my family crowned my SIL’s matzo balls as superior to mine (by a long shot), I knew the time had come to work on my recipe.
What is the Origin of Matzo Balls?
After reading many sources including my dog-eared copy of Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America and this article from NPR (among others), here’s my take on the evolution of these dumpling-like “balls”.
- The present-day matzo/matzah/matza ball originates from a German dumpling or knödel that was made with bread or flour or potato.
- When the German Jews moved eastward towards Poland they took this knödel with them, calling them kneidlach in Yiddish.
- Sometimes the kneidlach had a meat or cinnamon filling.
- How did they make it to the United States? When Manischewitz started making matzo in the United States by hand, the story goes that they made these kneidlach from the crumbs leftover from the matzo making.
- Then in the early ‘30s, Manischewitz published a cookbook with a recipe for Feather Balls, Alsatian Style and from there, the term matzo balls evolved.
When is Matzo Ball Soup Traditionally Eaten?
The most common time to serve matzo ball soup is at the Passover seder. Since the kneidlach are made with matzo meal, they are kosher for Passover (provided you use the kosher for Passover matzo meal).
But I know many people who consider this soup a staple at any Jewish holiday gathering including Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah. So make some brisket, add a seasonal side dish like delicata squash, serve the soup, and if you’re really feeling traditional how about some potato kugel or latkes on the side!
And of course, if you have the sniffles, this soup is perfect. It is scientifically proven that chicken soup cures the common cold right?
What are Floaters and Sinkers?
Not surprisingly, matzo ball lovers argue over the best matzo ball texture. Should it float in the soup? Should it sink? Should it be toothsome with a little bite or light and airy?
The “right” answer is a matter of personal taste. I prefer something light and airy but with just a touch of denseness to it. It’s all about the proportion of matzo meal vs liquid or is it?
What’s in a Matzo Ball?
The basic ingredients are:
- matzo meal
- some kind of fat such as oil or schmaltz
- liquid such as water, chicken soup, or seltzer (carbonated water).
The eggs bind the ingredients together, the fat adds flavor and the liquid is soaked up by the matzo meal as the batter hangs out in the fridge. Regular water adds no flavor but serves to swell the matzo meal. Chicken stock adds flavor while the matzo meal soaks it up. And seltzer water has the added benefit of adding air to the batter, creating lighter, fluffier matzo balls.
So the floaters vs sinkers result is not just about ratio. Because seltzer water adds aeration while regular water doesn’t. So you can get a different result with the same amount of liquid.
In addition, if you beat your eggs longer, more air is added to the batter, contributing to a fluffier result. And if you go as far as separating the eggs and beating the egg whites to stiff or soft peaks, the result will be even lighter and airier.
How Important is the Chicken Stock in a Matzo Ball Soup Recipe?
The chicken soup or stock can be used in several ways.
- If you don’t use seltzer in your matzo ball batter, I recommend using chicken stock.
- If you do make your own chicken stock ahead of time, you can use the fat that congeals on top after refrigeration in your matzo balls. Or you could make legit schmaltz but I’ll be honest, I never have. If you want to, here’s a great schmaltz recipe.
- The chicken stock can also be used to boil/cook the matzo balls. As the matzo balls cook, they soak up liquid. If the liquid is not flavorful, the kneidlach absorb tasteless extra moisture. So I like to cook the matzo ball batter in chicken stock or a mixture of chicken stock and water. If, however, you don’t want to use your homemade chicken stock to boil the balls, this is a good time to use your favorite low-sodium store-bought chicken stock. At the least, boil them in salted water, not plain water.
- And finally, you will want to use your homemade stock to make the final matzo ball soup presentation for your dinner guests or your family.
- Having said that, you could use turkey stock for this recipe. Or vegetable stock. Or even store-bought stock – just watch the sodium of the product you buy.
Can the Matzo Balls and Soup be Made Ahead of Time?
- You can and should make the matzo ball batter ahead of time so it can chill out in the fridge.
- You can also cook the balls in the morning or the day before and store them in a few tablespoons of liquid in the refrigerator.
- I always make the chicken stock ahead of time so I can refrigerate the soup and remove the fat layer at the top. (reserve this fat for the matzo ball mixture or any place fat is needed). If I am really together, I make a double or triple batch of chicken stock, freezing many portions for future use.
- I have never frozen the matzo balls but I read that Joan Nathan freezes the balls right in the soup and just defrosts the whole thing on the day she is serving the matzo ball soup.
Can I Cook the Matzo Balls in the Soup I’ll be Serving?
I don’t recommend this because the balls will throw off some sediment and cloudy up your beautiful soup. And they soak up a lot of liquid.
If your timing is such that this is the best/only option you have – go for it! Just have some extra broth available to augment after the matzo balls have cooked.
But if possible, prepare the balls in a separate liquid – preferably chicken or vegetable stock, as noted above.
Is Baking Powder Kosher for Passover?
After testing my recipe many times, I opted for using baking powder. There are baking powders considered kosher for Passover. If you are in the camp that just doesn’t feel it’s in the spirit of the holiday, leave it out. Whip the eggs more vigorously at the outset, definitely use seltzer, and you might up the fat content a bit if you are seeking fluffy floaters and not dense sinkers.
Can you Make this Soup and the Matzo Balls in an Instant Pot?
You can absolutely make your stock in the Instant Pot. It’s about a 2 hour process resulting in great flavor. The actual cooking time is only 30 – 45 minutes but you do need to let the Instant Pot come up to pressure and then let the pressure release naturally for at least 20 minutes. You can coax a lot of flavor out of a chicken carcass and leftover scraps of vegetables using pressure.
You could also, in theory, cook your matzo balls on the saute setting in the broth. But as I mentioned above, I recommend cooking your matzo balls in a separate pot of stock or water for maximum control over their doneness and volume and clarity of your final chicken soup.
What to Serve with Matzo Ball Soup
Supplies for Making Matzo Ball Soup
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Here are few must haves for making matzo ball soup. A good stock pot will not only yield wonderful broths – chicken, vegetable, beef and more, – but can double as a pasta pot, chili pot and more. The fine mesh strainer is my go to in my kitchen. It slips nicely over a bowl and most of the time is fine enough to avoid using cheesecloth. As for the matzo meal, take note of the type of matzo meal – is it kosher for Passover or just good for everyday use. That’s why I included two.
Also check out my Amazon shop that includes some of my favorite food and food-related products. I am always updating it – please visit often. And let me know if you need specific product recommendations – I am happy to help!
Traditional Matzo Ball Soup Recipe
- One whole chicken about 5 lbs – use giblets except for liver
- ½ pound carrots about 5 small, washed and cut in large pieces
- 1/4 pound celery washed and cut in large pieces
- 1 large onion quartered
- 10 - 15 peppercorns smashed
- Parsley a few sprigs
- Dill a few sprigs
- Thyme a few sprigs
- ½ meyer lemon optional
- kosher salt to taste (start with one tablespoon)
- extra carrots and herbs for serving
- 4 eggs
- 4 tablespoons olive oil or canola or vegetable oil or use fat from chicken soup
- 1/4 cup seltzer
- 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 cup matzo meal
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 1/4 tsp white pepper
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons parsley and dill optional
- Water and chicken stock for boiling the matzo balls
- Use a pasta pot or stock pot that holds 16 cups of water with room to spare for chicken and vegetables. Add all the vegetables and chicken into the pot. I usually put the chicken in first and then add all the vegetables and pour in the water.
- Place the stove on medium to medium high heat to bring the mixture to a boil, then turn it down to simmer. You’ll want to see a bit of bubbling here and there but not an active boil anymore.
- As it works its way to a boil, you’ll see the water get cloudy and some scum accumulate at the top. Skim this off occasionally – a large spoon will do the trick.
- At about an hour in, check the chicken. If it’s completely cooked (leg will jiggle easily), take it out of the pot carefully and place on a large plate to cool off a bit. This is a good time to walk your dog. The goal is for the chicken to cool enough that you can shred the meat off the carcass.
- While the chicken cools down a bit, let the rest of the stock continue to simmer on the stovetop.
- When you return from walking the dog, the chicken will have cooled down enough to take all the meat off the bones. Put the bones back in the pot and let it continue to cook – about another hour. Reserve the chicken meat in a container in the refrigerator.
- When the soup stock is done, let it cool down and then strain it through a fine mesh colander, lined with cheesecloth if necessary. Discard the solids and store the gorgeous golden-brown stock in containers in the fridge or freezer for later use. Do let it cool down a bit before closing the containers. Even if freezing, I would refrigerate to get the fat off the top if you want to use it for the matzo balls.
- Note that it is optional to remove the chicken and take the meat off the carcass. Many people just boil the chicken for a few hours and discard the meat. I prefer to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, and save the chicken for use in the soup or whatever else you might need shredded chicken for.
- In a small bowl, combine the dry ingredients – baking powder, matzo meal, peppers, salt.
- In a medium sized bowl, vigorously whisk eggs
- Then add oil and seltzer to eggs and continue to whisk for about 30 seconds.
- Add the dry ingredients and the chopped herbs (if using) into the wet ingredients and blend well. Refrigerate until the batter becomes thick – up to a few hours – even overnight.
- Bring your stock/salted water to a boil.
- While the stock is coming to a boil, roll your matzo balls. Best to use dampened hands and have a plate or tray ready lined with parchment if possible to place the uncooked balls on.
- Once the stock is boiling, reduce it to a low heat and add the matzo balls. Do not crowd because they will grow. Cook in two batches if need be.
- Simmer covered for about 50 minutes. It’s ok if it’s mildly boiling when covered but it should not boil vigorously. I tried shorter cook times but mine were perfect at 50 minutes. If you undercook them, they’ll be a bit dense and undercooked in the middle.
- If not using right away, store in a bit of liquid in a sealed container in the fridge.
Putting it all Together
- To serve the matzo ball soup, reheat the stock and if desired, add some sliced carrots for color and texture – you can zap the carrots in the microwave to soften them a bit or just let them cook in the stock as it reheats – depends what size pieces you use. Celery is another optional add in. Allow time for it to soften in the stock as it reheats.
- Add the matzo balls to the warmed stock to reheat the matzo balls if they have been refrigerated.
- When you serve, place some chicken (if using) in each bowl. Place the balls in the bowl, ladle in some soup. Then sprinkle chopped parsley and dill if desired – tastes fresh and looks lovely too.