While perusing several 18th century cookbooks, I’ve identified and included below a selection of recipes using suet. I chose these recipes because they seem to be fairly typical representations of food categories which commonly use suet: puddings, dumplings, pastry crusts, potted meats, cakes, sausages, forcemeats (stuffings), as well as fried and broiled foods. There are countless other recipes I could have chosen: beef olives, for instance, or forced leg of lamb — recipes that, judging by the number of cookbooks including them, were apparently very popular. I encourage you to try these!
– Pudding –
– Dumplings –
This recipe for dumplings is from Sarah Martin’s 1795 book, “The New Experienced English Housekeeper.” These dumplings are to accompany boiled beef. Don’t worry about how big “the bottom of a plate” should be. Make them however big you feel dumplings should be.
– Pastry Crust –
I have vowed to myself to one day make a Yorkshire pie. Yorkshire pies were commonly served around Christmas and Epiphany, and were intended to serve large crowds. Be sure to read our blog post on Christmas pies. This recipe makes an enormous pie. When was the last time you made a pie crust using 24 pounds of flour? This clip is from John Farley’s 1783 book, “The London Art of Cookery.”
– Potted Meat –
Here’s one method of of using suet to keep beef for longer periods in pots. This recipe is from Mrs. Frazer’s 1791 book, “The Practice of Cookery, Pastry, and Confectionary.” Rendered suet can be used in place of butter to seal the jars. By “Oiling the butter” Frazer means to clarify it, skimming all dairy solids from it. If you use butter to seal the pot, be absolutely sure it is well salted. Unsalted butter will quickly spoil and become moldy.
– Cake –
Here’s a recipe for cake using suet from John Perkin’s 1797 book, “Every Woman her own Housekeeper.” Dried orange blossoms are available online. Reading between the lines on this recipe, I suspect it is meant to be understood by the reader that the suet is first to be rendered, then allowed to solidify, and then grated before adding it to the other ingredients. There is very little instruction given here.
This recipe is an exception to my comments above regarding my choice of recipes based on their representation of their food category. Most period cake recipes depend on mechanical leavening for their light and airy texture. This is accomplished by beating egg whites into chiffon, which is then carefully folded into the cake batter. This recipe, however, omits eggs altogether. I suspect it uses suet instead to create a heavier, yet spongy texture. If this is indeed the case, the suet would need to be added in grated form as opposed to melted, as a cursory reading might suggest.
– Sausage –
Here’s a simple, but amazingly delicious recipe for sausage from Maria Rundell’s 1807 book, “A New System of Domestic Cookery.” Similar recipes suggest that these can be made up into “finger-like” shapes and browned in butter.
– Forcemeat (Dressing) –
Here’s a recipe that uses suet. It’s for forcemeat, or dressing. It’s from Mary Johnson’s 1753 book, “Madam Johnson’s Present.” If rabbit isn’t your thing, a fowl of your choice will work as well. A couple notes of clarification: obviously, you can substitute ground spices for those pounded in a mortar, or you can use one of our spice mixes that accurately follow original 18th century mixed-spice recipes. Also, the ‘catchup” mentioned here is likely either walnut or mushroom ketchup. (Be sure to check out my previous post on 18th century ketchups.) If you don’t have 18th century ketchup, I suggest a spoonful of Worcestershire sauce instead — a close substitute.
– Frying –
Come late spring, I love to head down the hill with fishing pole in hand, hoping to stink up a frying pan with a few bluegill or a nice bass. You can bet I’ll be trying this recipe from Francis Collingwood’s 1792 book, “The Universal Cook.”
– Grilling & Broiling –
And finally, here’s a technique for using suet when grilling or broiling. This is from T. Williams’ 1797 book, “The Accomplished Housekeeper.” Beef steaks can be grilled in the same fashion.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.