Suet, Part two: What it is, What it isn’t, and What to Look For
Posted on January 20 2013
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.