A few weeks ago we added 125 lbs of grassfed beef to our freezer. In addition to all of those steaks and roasts, we filled a second freezer full of organs (heart, liver, tongue), soup bones, and fat from the cow. We like to use tallow (rendered fat) for cooking, but there’s no way we would get through 15 lbs of it in a year. Fortunately, tallow has many uses, including soap and candles. But whether you’re using it for cooking, candles, soap, leather conditioner, pemmican, or bird feeders, it all starts the same way. You have to convert (render) the raw animal fat (suet) into tallow.
(As a side note, if you’ve ever wondered the difference between suet, lard, and tallow, it goes like this: lard is fat from a pig, and it’s called lard both before and after it’s rendered. Suet is the fat from beef, venison, and mutton, and once rendered, it’s called tallow. Interestingly, McDonalds fried their french fries in beef tallow up until the early 90s when the USDA stepped up their efforts to villainize cholesterol, causing a collective freak-out that animal fat causes heart disease [a myth that continues to trend, but has been widely debunked]. Now McDonalds has switched to vegetable fat (e.g., corn oil), but in order to keep a similar flavor, they add “beef flavoring derived from hydrolyzed wheat and milk.” I can’t help but feel that this is a serious step backward in our culinary evolution.)
So rendering. There are two ways to go about it: dry rendering or wet rendering. Wet rendering involves slowly simmering the fat in water, which helps uniformly distribute the temperature. Once purified, the fat and water are strained through a cheesecloth and refrigerated. The fat will harden in a layer on top, and the water will settle to the bottom, where it can easily be poured out after the fat solidifies.
The other method is dry rendering, which can be done on the stovetop, oven, or crockpot at low temps. I’ve tried stovetop rendering in the past and it works well, but you have to be vigilant about stirring because it’s easy to burn, which ruins the flavor of the tallow. This time, I tried dry rendering in the slow cooker, and it’s the only method I will use in the future. Here’s a step by step.
1. Start with partially frozen grassfed suet. It’s important that the beef was grassfed, because the nutrient value is much, much higher. Also, it should ideally be organic, since the residue from antibiotics, pesticides, and other nasty stuff is more concentrated in an animal’s fat. I started with 6 lbs of suet, which was a good amount for my 5-quart crockpot.
2. Trim off all bits of meat from the fat. These bits will cook and burn faster, which will throw off the taste of your tallow.
3. Toss the chunks of suet into a food processor. This helps to break up the fibers of connective tissue, and the tallow will render faster. Dump them into a crockpot and set on LOW. The process can take 6-12 hours to fully render.
4. Strain. After about 8 hours, I had more liquid than solid, and it was time to separate. I set a metal strainer over a stainless steel bowl, lined the strainer with cheesecloth, and poured it all in. There was quite a bit of fat left in my cheesecloth, and I thought I could probably get more tallow out of it. But it was already 9 p.m., and I didn’t want to risk burning the whole batch by leaving it in the crockpot overnight. After straining out the pure light-yellow oil, I put the remaining fat back in the crockpot, turned it back on low, and went to bed.
In the morning, nearly 2 pints of additional tallow had rendered, and the fat had clearly finished its rendering process. How could I tell? Because the fat was no longer a greasy looking glob; it had browned and hardened into “crispins,” which sank to the bottom. This time when I strained it, the rendered oil was a darker yellow and had a noticeable “roasted” scent. I’m glad I separated the majority out the day before, because whereas I enjoy a roasty scent in my food, I don’t care for it in my candles and body soap. The first picture shows the initial rendering, the second is the final rendering, with the dark brown crispins on top.
5. Storage. I poured the first rendering into a 9×13 pan lined with parchment paper, to make cleanup a little easier. It hardened into a creamy smooth fat, which I cut up to store in yogurt containers in the freezer until I have some time to make candles. The second (darker) rendering will be stored in an airtight jar on our countertop and used for cooking. It, too, will harden once it cools.
If you still have any reservations about the health value of animal fat, I encourage you to read the article Are the Government’s Dietary Guidelines Making us Obese?, by Margie King, and The Diet-Heart Myth: Cholesterol and Saturated Fat Are Not the Enemy, by Chris Kresser.