Suet, Part two: What it is, What it isn’t, and What to Look For.

suet

Beef suet

In my last post, I took a brief look at the important role suet had in 18th century foodways as well as in life in general. I gave an over-simplified explanation that suet is the hard fat from the loins of beef and mutton. I’d like to add a little more meat, so to speak, to that definition.

Beef suet can sometimes be a bit difficult to find here in the United States. I suspect that much of it ends up rendered, mixed with peanut butter and birdfeed, and packaged into blocks of winter-time bird food. Suet is a perfect high-caloric attraction for all my feathered friends who decide to stick out the cold northern winter with me.

I recently stopped at a well-respected butcher’s shop in the area. After my unsuccessful search for suet at five local grocery store meat departments, I was pleased when the butcher trotted out of the cooler with a 10-pound bag of the white stuff. My pleasure turned to disappointment, however, when I opened the bag at home to discover that he had just hoodwinked me with 10 pounds of hard muscle fat. It’s not the same thing.

Real suet is located on the inside of loin area of cattle and sheep. It is the hard fat that surrounds the animal’s kidneys. If you ask your butcher for suet, be sure he or she understands that you want kidney fat.

Muscle fat (left), suet (right)

Muscle fat (left), suet (right)

The difference between hard muscle fat and kidney fat may not be all that apparent up front. They both can be quite stiff and look much alike. The real difference can seen during and following the rendering process.

Suet, as opposed to muscle fat, contains a higher level of a triglyceride known as glyceryl tristearate, otherwise known as stearin. The result is that suet has a higher melting point and congealing point than regular fat.

Boiled Puddings

Boiled Puddings

This little point of trivia is important in order to understand the old English recipes. Suet is grated or picked into small pieces as part of the process of preparing it for cooking. When mixed with other ingredients — let’s say the a batter for a traditional boiled pudding, the particles of suet retain their mass well into the cooking process.  When the melting point of suet is finally reached, the surrounding batter has already begun to set. By the time full baking temperature is reached within the pudding, the suet has melted, leaving a void in the batter.

Consequently, the use of suet in such dishes as puddings, dumplings, and mince pie results in a spongy texture.  If the lower-melting muscle fat is used in suet’s place, the fat will melt before the batter has a chance to set, resulting in a much heavier final result.

Not only is suet used for textural purposes, but it is also used to add moisture to the dish without adding a strong meaty flavor that is so common with muscle fat. Suet has a much milder flavor.

I went ahead, for experimentation purposes, and rendered some of the muscle fat the butcher passed off to me as suet. Beyond the fact that my entire house smelled for three days like one giant broiled steak, the rendered fat I ended up with resembled a side dish of my grandma’s runny mashed potatoes. But unlike my grandma’s mashed potatoes, my rendered muscle fat never hardened, even when it was cold.

rendered muscle fat

Jon with a bowl of rendered muscle fat

This may seem strange, but I generally keep a couple of gallons of commercially rendered tallow within reach here at the office. I use it to make a couple of products here at Jas. Townsend & Son. “Tallow” is a general term that means rendered fat. Tallow can be made from suet, or muscle fat, or a combination of both. The texture of tallow varies broadly, however, depending on the raw form of fat from which its made. So if you find yourself someday in the reenacting mood to make tallow candles, this is an important bit of information to know. You simply cannot make candles with tallow rendered from muscle fat.

rendered suet

Jon with a solid bar of rendered suet

Rendered suet, on the other hand, will congeal into a solid chunk. (I’ll talk about the actually rendering process in my next post.) The chunk I made felt like a bar of beauty soap. Mix rendered suet with a little lye and a chemical reaction occurs that results in water-soluble sodium stearate — the primary ingredient in most hand soaps.

Oh, one other thing: Just like beef muscle fat, pork lard is an unsatisfactory substitute for suet. You may have a difficult time distinguishing by sight between a lump of lard and a lump of suet tallow, but don’t even think about using it as a substitute.

Now in my previous post on 18th century Christmas pies, as well as in the accompanying video, we suggested using vegetable shortening as a suet substitute. Admittedly, it’s not a very good substitute, but it does provide the moisture without adding a strong flavor.

The problem is that while vegetable shortening’s melting point is relatively the same as suet, its congealing point is much lower. What that means is this: when we shot the video, we had to freeze the vegetable shortening in order to grate it. Then we had to keep it frozen until the very last second. But even then, the moment we added the grated vegetable shortening to the other ingredients, it lost its mass and acted like room-temperature butter, coating the other ingredients rather than retaining its particle shape. The final result was still a delicious pie, but it didn’t have the desired spongy texture that would have resulted from using suet.

suet

Now, if you live in the U.K., you’re probably wondering why I suggest going through the hassle of dealing with raw suet when all you have to do is stroll down to the corner grocer and pick up a box of processed suet. While I’m sure there are stores here in the States that sell this product, I sure can’t find it here in northern Indiana. We had to go online to buy a box, which ended up going through customs to get here.

If you decide to use this processed product in your 18th century foodie experiments, beware that it uses wheat flour (15% by weight) as a stabilizer to improve its ability to retain its shape. From a historical-accuracy standpoint, the addition of flour may be perfectly legitimate. William Kitchiner, in his 1817 book, “The Cook’s Oracle,” suggests that during hot weather, shredded suet should be dredged with flour — apparently to stabilize its mass retention.

The caveat I offer is that if you are already using flour in your 18th century recipe in addition to that used in processed suet, you may have to make a minor adjustment to the amount of flour in order to get accurate results. Modern recipes that call for suet, by the way, already accommodate this additional flour.

And finally, when shopping for suet, try to get the whitest suet you can find. This little tidbit is reiterated throughout the old cookbooks. Suet tends to turn a buttery yellow as it ages, and as it does, it also takes on a stronger flavor. Most beef offered for sale here in the States is aged. This may pose an additional challenge in finding fresh suet. A processor who actually slaughters the animal is probably your best bet for finding the freshest suet. A light buttery colored yellow suet is still usable, but a clean white suet is preferred. And for goodness sake, don’t accept suet that is brown or massively bloody. That may be fine for the birds, but it’s unsuitable for cooking.

In my next post, I’ll examine more closely how to process suet for use in cooking.

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20 Responses to Suet, Part two: What it is, What it isn’t, and What to Look For.

  1. John Britton says:

    I found a please where to buy suet in the us on line try http://www.grasslandbeef.com/Detail.bok?no=670 there in Montana I think. hope this helps

    • CherryAlmond says:

      I just bought this – thanks for the post. While it is advertised as beef suet, the actual packaging stated it was ground beef fat. Sooo, petrified I would end up with a nasty Christmas pudding I e-mailed them to confirm it was Kidney fat and this was their response: ‘A good percentage of the suet is kidney fat, but suet includes other fat removed during the break of the carcass into subprimals. The fat can be trimmed from all areas (such as kidneys, loins and abdomen), but the highest percentage is the organ fats.’ They were excellent on a customer service (quick response and said could credit if it was not suitable). I am going to give it a go in Eliza Acton’s Christmas pudding from 1845 and hope for the best. The customer service person said that most of their customers buy this product for Christmas pudding or to make their own sausages and have had no problems. It comes chopped and frozen so I chopped it by hand into smaller pieces and took out anything that wasn’t pure white with a satin texture. . As a Brit, I am excited to see how this will turn out. So lucky I found this site as I almost wasted a tonne of fruit on the pork fat that the Safeway butcher called Suet. Fingers crossed!

      • Anne Butzen says:

        John and Cherry, thank you both for the info on Grassland; I’m going to try their suet.

        I live in a big city (Chicago) with loads of butcher shops, but I couldn’t find a one that carried suet or even knew what it was. Can you imagine?

      • CherryAlmond says:

        Just an update on my November 2013 post regarding Grassland beef suet. I prepared Eliza Acton’s recipe for Christmas pudding from 1845 in November 2013 and I used http://www.grasslandbeef.com suet. If you Google the recipe, you will find it is very heavy on the suet! As noted in my post above, Grasslands/US wellness meats suet is mainly kidney fat, but not 100%. I have to say that the pudding result was very good and there was certainly no ‘meaty’ undertones to the pudding. Therefore, I’d be happy to recommend this to anyone in the USA looking for an almost authentic suet for a Christmas pudding. I do however have a crazy amount of the fat in the freezer as the smallest bag was huge! Best of luck with your puddings.

  2. fifi says:

    Oddly, I live in Hawaii. One can get suet at the grocery store! They all seem to stock it.

  3. Bruce says:

    I was taught tallow was differant from fat, being waxy and harder in texture. Only comes from one spot in the animal, true suet perhaps? PS- really love this blog!

    • Kevin Carter says:

      Hi Bruce. Thank you for your kind words! Yes, you’re correct. The traditional primary definition IS suet (i.e., kidney fat); the secondary definition is that which is rendered from suet. A tertiary definition is any of various fatty substances (and that’s just the noun form of the word). So it’s no wonder there’s some confusion out there. The gallon of commercially prepared “tallow” that sits on my desk that I mentioned in this post can be squeezed from its plastic jug at room temperature — a telltale sign it came from muscle fat and not suet; yet it was labeled “100% tallow” — and technically, I suppose, rightly so. I would, however, be unable to achieve the same results in cooking and candle and soap making with this “tallow” as I would with rendered suet tallow. And that’s the long way ’round explaining why I made the distinction. Thanks again!

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  6. Mary in LA says:

    Thank you so much for the explanation. Now I understand why my one attempt to make pemmican failed so miserably. I had ignorantly used rendered muscle fat (from hamburger). Time to try again with actual suet.

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  8. GrassFood says:

    Excellent explanation, thank you! I do render my own beef fat for tallow, and keep the leaf lard separate when rendering our pig fat for lard. My tallow , from my grass-fed only cows which does make a difference, is very hard and firm though, but I will separate out the different fats in the future. I’m making a tallow salve, usually with cow tallow, from kidney fat from our sheep, and am curious if there is a difference. Love your blog! :)

    • Kevin Carter says:

      Thank you! I’ve wondered myself whether there was a significant distinction between beef suet and lamb suet. I have found one or two references in the older cookbooks that suggested that sheep suet has a slightly milder taste, however, the two fats were considered interchangeable by many other authors. It seems the distinction was considered by most to be insignificant. From a more technical standpoint, according to Jennifer McLagan in her 2008 cookbook, Fat, lamb suet is slightly lower in percentages of saturated and monounsaturated fats than beef suet: 47% Saturated and 40% Monounsaturated versus beef’s 50% and 42%. As an aside, the saturated fats in both beef and lamb suet, according to McLagan, consist primarily of stearic and palmitic acids, which are believed to lower LDL cholesterol. Futhermore, your grass-fed animals develop higher levels of Omega-3 and conjugated linoleic acids, both believed to be beneficial to our health.

      • juan1moore says:

        I raise rare Milking Devon cattle on grass and vegetables and hay without grain or soy or urea or by-products whatever. I’ve made several large batches of tallow and use it for all of my cooking, I’ve been learning about soap-making.

        I have rendered the leaf (kidney) fat immediately after slaughter – and I have rendered the additional trimmings that the butcher removes after 21 to 30 days of dry-aging (42*F). It is easier to get a clean cook with the limited blood vessels and meat scraps in the leaf fat, and I think it has less odor. Generally the fat from the second harvesting has a mild odor that reminds me of deep-fat frying.

        Some breeds of cattle (Jersey is one) naturally have yellow fat. The Devon fat is a creamy color.

        High temperature cooking (frying burgers for example) can cause some chemical break-down of the fat, The process to clean cooking fats to make soap is quite extensive.

        Mutton tallow melts at a higher temperature than beef tallow and makes a more brittle soap bar, but is preferred for candles. I think mutton fat has a higher percentage of oleic acid but cannot find a reference at this time.

        I don’t care for the smell of mutton tallow, but I don’t like the taste of lamb either. Deer or goat fat should have similar properties to the sheep.

  9. For folks in the NYC area, Grazin’ Angus sells beef suet at the Union Square and Carroll Gardens Greenmarkets. I get it all the time for deep frying. I haven’t tried using it for pastries (leaf lard and butter is my go-to for that) but reading about its properties makes me want to try it in my next pie crust or baking soda biscuits! http://www.grazinangusacres.com/

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  12. MA says:

    Thank so much for this info! Your explanation was so complete – answered all my questions. I was searching for a traditional mincemeat recipe & realized I didn’t know what suet actually was. Thanks, too, for your caveats re: buying true suet. BTW, I love that your hobby is recreating all these traditional products/methods. I look forward to reading your other posts.

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