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.