Suet was apparently used both raw and rendered (refined) in 18th century cooking. While some of the original recipes specified the use of rendered suet, most seemed to leave the option open. It is fairly common for recipes to instruct the cook to make sure the suet was free from all skin (connective tissue) and blood vessels. This, of course, suggests the suet was being used raw. I suspect the decision between using raw suet and rendered was ultimately determined by what the cook had on hand.
Raw suet perishes fairly quickly. If you are using raw suet in your recipe, you must keep the suet refrigerated. In addition, fresh suet should be used within a few days. Properly rendered suet, on the other hand, will keep for months at room temperature.
The rendering or refining of suet is accomplished by heating the raw suet to separate the fat from the remaining connective tissue, blood vessels, etc., but at a low enough temperature that the connective tissue isn’t fried.
Maria Rundell, in her 1807 book, “A New System of Domestic Cookery,” outlined the process:
When Rundell spoke of “skin,” She was referring to the connective tissue the runs throughout suet.
If you are using raw suet in your recipes, this connective tissue needs to be removed as thoroughly as possible. Removing it completely, however, is virtually impossible without rendering the suet.
For our video, we picked our suet down to about 1/2″ to 1″ cubes. We made sure to pick only the cleanest, whitest suet from the entire piece.
We then finely diced the suet into pea-sized pieces. Our suet was ready to use for such recipes as boiled pudding, haggis, and dumplings.
If you are unable to use your suet right away, or you wish to further process your suet making it shelf-safe for use at a later time, you will need to render it. Start by placing the suet in a cooking vessel. We suggest an iron pot as the rendering process will also contribute to the on-going seasoning of the pot.
You’ll need to place the pot near the fire but not over it. This process may take several hours to complete. Don’t rush it. As Rundell suggests, cooking the fat and connective tissue will cause the fat to have a strong meaty flavor.
A modern alternative to this process is to place your chopped suet into a slow cooker set on low. Be sure to leave the cooker uncovered. Besides separating the fat from the connective tissue, rendering also evaporates moisture that exists naturally with the fat. Leaving the lid off your slow cooker will ensure that no moisture is trapped in the cook pot. An alternate modern method is to warm your suet in a baking dish in your oven set on its lowest temperature. Do not use your microwave. It heats too quickly.
Which ever method you use, keep the temperature low and be patient with the process. You’re not only separating the fat from connective tissue, but you’re also driving off moisture — while avoiding frying the contents of your pot.
After several hours after the fat is completely liquefied, stain it through a sieve or a clean cloth.
The remaining particles of connective tissue, called graves, can be discarded. I have found one reference in 18th century literature that indicated graves were sometimes used as fish bait. In our experiments, we weighed the graves as well as the final rendered suet or tallow and compared it to original weight of the well-picked raw suet. The graves accounted for about 25% of the total weight — even with fairly meticulous picking.
Once you’ve strained the molten suet free of graves into a bowl, transfer the suet into pans for cooling. Rundell suggests pouring the suet into cold water. This further refines the suet by settling out any particles. Some modern rendering techniques suggest a secondary rendering as well to ensure that the moisture is completely driven off.
When the suet has solidified, it can be removed from your molds, wrapped in paper, and then placed in a cloth bag for storage in a cool dry place.
This rendered suet or tallow can be grated for puddings and dumplings, or it can be melted for deep frying and sealing jars of preserved fruit or jams. In my next post, I’ll present some recipes that typify the various types of 18th century foods in which suet was used.
If you’re going to melt it down, why bother picking it into pea-sized chunks? Why not inch cubes, for example? You’re going to filter the graves through a cheesecloth once it’s melted. Why go through the effort of picking out the tissue that the cheesecloth will catch?
Hi Lefty, thanks for the question. We shredded it to pea-sized pieces to demonstrate the process of preparing it for use in its raw state. If you intend to render it, picking it really isn’t necessary. I have a slow cooker filled with suet in my kitchen as I write this. I simply cut the suet into manageable chunks that fit well in the crock. I suppose picking it more finely would increase the surface area, thus potentially decreasing the time required to render it, but that effect remains a hypothesis at this point
Just want to say that I’m enjoying this so much. Thanks
Thank you, Gene. So have I.
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My suet seems a little soft do I need to render again.? I also missed the intended part about leaving lid off crook. Maybe moisture?
My hunch here is that you may have used hard muscle fat instead of (or in addition to) true suet (kidney fat). The two can seem very similar in their un-rendered states. In fact, the first time I asked my butcher for suet, he sold me hard muscle fat instead. It was not as much a matter of ignorance for him as it was a matter of semantics. The term “suet” nowadays is a widely used generically to describe any hard fat. Beyond the similarities in appearance, however, there is a real difference between muscle fat and kidney fat…a molecular difference. As a result, muscle fat, no matter how hard in consistency in its un-rendered state, will have the consistency of soft mashed potatoes when rendered; whereas rendered kidney fat will set up much like a bar of hand soap. If you’ve used muscle fat, no amount of rendering or re-rendering will accomplish the firmer consistency.
My recommendation to remove the lid from your slow cooker has to do entirely with preservation of the rendered suet. Suet in its natural state has a high water content, which causes the suet to rapidly spoil. Taking the lid off your slow cooker allows the moisture to be completely driven off. Kidney fat that has been well rendered (where the water has been driven off completely) will keep for months at room temperature, if not virtually indefinitely. On the other hand, even if you ADDED water to the pot during the rendering process (which a number of the old recipes actually recommend for clarifying the suet of its graves and sediment — another reason for spoilage) the suet would still separate from the water for the most part, float to the top, and harden when allowed to cool. It would not be soft like mashed potatoes. That’s what makes me think you may have used muscle fat instead of (or in addition to) kidney fat.
Is it okay to freeze raw suet?
Yes, but I suggest you shred or pick it first before you freeze it. I try to keep a few bags of shredded suet on hand in my freezer.
Does rendered, solidified and then grated suet perform differently than raw picked suet? I will be using it in a dough.
Hi John. They are pretty much interchangeable. If what you are making has a fine texture, you may wish to use rendered suet, as even the most meticulously picked raw suet will still have bits of connective tissue in it.
Will muscle fat work in recipes calling for suet (eg mincemeat)? That’s all our local meatmarkets appear to have.
Can I use muscle fat for recipes calling for suet? Apparently that’s all our local meat markets supply.
Muscle fat is very different. Suet has a higher melting point which allows for the development of structure within your dish. But it is also (and probably more significant) closer to being neutral in taste than muscle fat. Hard muscle fat will impart a steak flavor to your foods. It may seem more shameless than I intend, but the fact is, your situation is exactly why we started importing Atora Suet from Great Britain. Here’s a link: http://jas-townsend.com/atora-suet-p-1372.html
Suet is now available in my local supermarket, perhaps because of the various ethnic groups living in our area. I hand picked my suet (for a Christmas pudding), having to leave some connective tissue on it. My food processor blade seems to have picked up a good bit of that tissue, which I was able to remove when cleaning the blade. I hope this eliminated a good bit of what tissue had remained. Next time I will definitely try rendering instead. Would a cast-iron skillet in a 170ºF oven work? Can a higher temperature be used? Please advise.
Hi, thanks for the article and video. I rendered some suet over the weekend in a crockpot, and wound up with a pure white, solid block of suet – perfect! Only got a 50% yield by weight, but it was cheap and easy enough that I was happy with that.
Any advice on shredding it for recipes? I was planning on refrigerating or freezing it, then just using a box grater.
If it was kidney fat, it should be solid enough to grate or chop with a knife without freezing.
Would a cast-iron skillet in a 170ºF oven work for rendering suet? Can a higher temperature be used? What would the approximate time needed be? Please advise.
Can suet be ‘over-rendered’ ? For example, if i’m rendering it and leave the house, what would happen if it finishes rendering but i don’t return in time to take it off the heat?
I apologize for the delay in my response. The risk is burning it. If it gets too hot, the membranes in the suet can actually be cooked, which will give the suet a peculiar smell and taste. But if it’s done at a lower temperature in a slow cooker, it should be fine. Like with any foods, I would recommend not leaving it unattended on your stove top, however.
can I use the hard muscle fat suet? and what can I use it for? because I can’t get true suet.
Hard muscle fat and suet are very different, and I typically advise (pretty strongly) against using the prior. It’s simply not a good substitute. You’re right, suet can be difficult to find. We offer a high-quality rendered suet here: http://www.townsends.us/premium-beef-suet-tallow-bs940-p-1437.html. The alternative t=is to ask a reliable butcher, but if you do, be sure to clarify that you’re asking for suet from the kidney area (or organ fat). Even a good butcher can confuse hard muscle fat for true suet.
Thanks for this thorough and thoughtful post about suet. Because I was in a hurry to get started on a Christmas pudding, I managed to miss the bit about not using the microwave. Doh. (In my defence, I often microwave the fat of a duck breast on low defrost to use for pommes de terre sarladaises — but I usually do it in very small bursts. Ok, not much of a defence. Really. I don’t know what I was thinking.)
Anyways, I now have a lovely white block of hard suet, but that smells a bit, but not horribly. I was thinking I might be able to use it for pastry when making a meat pie…. What do you think? Any other uses? Or do I toss it and begin again?