Suet, Part One: Its role in 18th Century Foodways and Life
Posted on January 17 2013
Scan through almost any 18th century cookbook and you will find a recurring term: Suet. Suet was an important ingredient in English cooking. It’s still used today, though it seems to have reserved its spot on British grocery shelves much more so than here in the United States.
Suet is a special hard fat found in the loins of beef and sheep — I’ll explain specifically what suet is (and what it isn’t) in my next post. As an ingredient, it fills the columns of the old cookbooks. It’s an essential component in many traditional puddings, dumplings, crusts, mince pie, sausage, haggis, and forcemeats and stuffings. It was used to create an air-tight seal for potted meats and preserved fruits and vegetables. In its clarified state, it was used for deep frying, broiling, basting, and grilling.
David Steel’s 1795 book, “The Ship Master’s Accountant,” explains how sailors were issued flour, currants, and suet one day a week (Sunday, according to other texts) in lieu of their normal ration of beef. With these ingredients, the men would make “Plum Duff” — a simple boiled plum pudding.
Suet had numerous non-culinary uses in the 18th century as well. Countless medicinal ointments used suet as a base ingredient. It was used as lamp oil, as well as in the production of soap and leather treatments such as dubbin and black ball.
Maria Rundell, in her 1807 cookbook, “A New System of Domestic Cookery” uses suet in a couple recipes for Pomatum — the 18th century version of Pomade. She goes on to explain how suet can be used as a rust inhibitor of metal pots and utensils.
Will Hays, in his 1775 book, “Valuable Secrets Concerning Arts and Trade,” publishes a formula which uses suet for oil-based paint. And if you’re ever concerned that someone may find out that you make your candles out of suet, here’s his recipe for a suet candle that no one will ever suspect:
Hays also offers a recipe for fish bait which uses suet and various other sundry (and stinky) ingredients along with a little cotton fiber to hold it all together. More “fish paste” recipes can be found in the 1800 publication, “The Sportsman’s Dictionary.”
Probably the most serendipitous find in my research was Elizabeth Moxon’s instructions for making carbon paper in her 1749 book “English Housewifry.”
Rundell explains further in her book how this black paper can be used to copy clothing patterns.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ll take a closer look in future posts at what Suet is and what it isn’t. In addition, I’ll explain what you should look for when purchasing suet and how to process it for use. I’ll also post a sampling of recipes from various 18th and early 19th century cookbooks that use suet as a major ingredient.