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Sinkers and Floaters

I tested every matzo ball technique…for science!

March 27, 2023  |   by Daniel Osser

Matzo ball soup is a classic dish that’s often served during Jewish holidays or as a comfort food. However, the recipe for the perfect matzo ball can be a hotly debated topic among chefs and home cooks alike. Preferences vary depending on how one grew up eating them. Dense and chewy? Lighter than air and fluffy? Somewhere in between? I tested ten variations of the classic matzo ball recipe to see how they stacked up against the original. After each batch was cooked, I placed the matzo balls in a container of room-temperature broth to evaluate whether they were “floaters” or “sinkers.” You might be surprised by the results!


I used the recipe right off the back of the matzo meal container as the “control” recipe—regardless of brand, that cylindrical canister always seems to feature the same basic recipe with a thirty-minute, lid-on, no-peeking-allowed boil. The matzo balls puffed nicely and bobbed at the surface after they were done. They were cooked through with some airy pockets, perfect for soaking up broth once cut open. Any extended time in broth and the air pockets become saturated, causing them to sink, so if you like floaters, serve immediately.


Same as the original but simmered the whole way through with the lid off. “Don’t peek or you’ll ruin it!”—I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this as the cardinal rule of matzo ball making. The idea is that somehow if you peek at your matzo balls under the lid while they are boiling, they will deflate, or explode, or something bad! To check this, I boiled them the entire time with the lid off. The matzo balls had to be turned over periodically so they cooked evenly. They discolored slightly on top, but ultimately swelled to the same size as the originals. Cooking with the lid on is ideal for even cooking, but my test disproved the theory that peeking will ruin the matzo balls. I can now say, definitively, peeking is fine. It’s just not necessary. The final texture of this batch ended up slightly dry with a slightly dense interior compared with the original. They floated right out of the pot then sunk shortly after.


These were boiled for an extra 15 minutes, causing all the air pockets to fill with boiling water. The texture was chewier but not so chewy that I needed a knife to cut one. They sunk to the bottom of the pot a few minutes after soaking in the broth. This is probably why sinkers are so common.


For this batch, I replaced the olive oil with rendered chicken fat, or “schmaltz.” Texture-wise these were identical to the original but wow, what a flavor difference! The rendered chicken fat gave the matzo balls a satisfying, homey, savory flavor. Scooping the batter was a bit of a challenge since the solidified chicken fat firmed it up considerably, but in the end, it didn’t affect the texture. It was the flavor that made these a winner. Same as the others, this one floated at first, then sank after a few minutes.


I next tried substituting seltzer water for the broth because many recipes claim that seltzer will result in lighter, fluffier matzo balls. Since most matzo ball recipes generally call for only a tablespoon or two of broth, I found that subbing in a tablespoon or two of seltzer had absolutely no effect on the fluffiness of the matzo balls. In fact, it worked against the overall flavor since you replace flavorful broth with flavorless soda water. These floated at first, then promptly sank. Notice a pattern here?


Ah, the power of a simple leavener. For this version, I added a teaspoon of baking powder to the classic recipe. The main components of the powder (alkaline sodium bicarbonate and acidic sodium aluminum sulfate) react, creating air bubbles throughout the cooking process, resulting in the absolute lightest matzo balls of the group. This is really the way to go for the fluffiest matzo balls in town! In fact, if you read the ingredients on matzo ball soup mixes, they always include baking powder. If you are trying to keep kosher for Passover, however, many baking powders are not allowed. This is not due to their leavening properties but because most brands contain cornstarch and corn is not kosher for Passover. There are kosher brands of baking powder available that are made with potato starch instead and these would be just fine to use. Floaters for a couple minutes, then sinkers.


For this version, I whipped the egg whites separately then folded the fluffy meringue into the mix. I was surprised to find that the whipped egg whites didn’t do much for fluffiness and instead resulted in an almost rubbery result. You could probably bounce these matzo balls on the floor, and they would return to your hand. Not so much dense or chewy, but certainly bouncy! Floaters, then sinkers.


For this version, I doubled the oil and wow, what a difference it made! These were just as soft and fluffy as the baking powder ones and way more flavorful. Do yourself a favor and make these with a good buttery extra-virgin olive oil or a 50/50 mix of olive oil and schmaltz. These eventually sank like all the others, but to my taste, they were best in the bunch.


The amount of oil in this version was dramatically reduced. This change resulted in a very dense and chewy matzo ball. If this is your jam, just cut the oil in your recipe in half and you’ll be happy with the result. Surprisingly, this version floated for hours and was the only one that could have been considered a true “floater.” Probably because it was so dense that the air pockets were locked in place, unable to soak up any broth. This leads me to believe that a matzo ball will float only as long as the air pockets are filled with air and not broth. Some people love a dense, chewy matzo ball, but for me these were a bit too heavy.


My general mantra is if you can make it plant-based and it’s just as good, make it plant-based! I substituted the eggs with an equal amount by volume of JUST Egg, a plant-based egg substitute. Unfortunately, these just didn’t work for a couple reasons. They never fully expanded, instead they just formed a dense pocket of dough with a slimy exterior. Also, the mung beans from which this egg substitute is derived are not kosher for Passover. This, unfortunately, is a pass. Also, they sank, no surprise there.

There are many ways to tweak the traditional matzo ball recipe to achieve different textures and flavors. While some variations like using seltzer water may not make a noticeable difference, others like substituting chicken fat for olive oil or adding baking powder can make a significant impact on the final result. Whether you prefer a light and fluffy matzo ball or a chewier and denser one, there is a recipe out there for you to try. One thing is for sure though, every matzo ball floats right out of the pot, then sinks. Even the dense and chewy version sunk after soaking in broth overnight. All in all, there’s no correct way to make a matzo ball. You can make them any way you like them!