If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already decided that cooking with animal fat is not the worst thing you can do. So I won’t bother going into an explanation of how trans fat from hydrogenated vegetable oil is the real killer. But I will point out that there are several people who will explain it all in great detail.
So, now you’re interested in how to do it. If you don’t already have some frier-ready tallow, rendering your own is cheap and (fairly) easy.
Rendering suet into tallow
Start with three pounds of suet. You can get it from your local butcher. They probably won’t have it at the grocery store.
You would think from looking at it that this would be a flabby, sticky, greasy, nasty mess. It’s actually very dry, stiff and waxy. You don’t want to handle it too much or it can start to melt. Keep it in the fridge until you’re ready to start cutting and it should be fine.
Dice everything into pieces about a half-inch square and put it all in a deep pan.
The one in the pictures is an 11-inch pan. Three pounds of suet filled this pan about two inches deep.
Fill the pan with enough water to just barely cover all the suet.
If you compare the photo above to the previous one you might think it looks much more than “barely covered”. You would be right. Suet floats. Fill slowly and pay attention.
Put over high heat until the water starts boiling, then turn down to medium. Cook until the water is boiled away then turn heat to low. By this point you should have lumps of mostly-rendered suet floating in hot liquid fat.
Set a second large pan or pot next to the first, and place a colander in it. Place a paper towel in the bottom of the colander, or line it with cheesecloth. Using a slotted spoon, scoop the floating suet out and into a potato ricer.
If you haven’t seen one of these before, it’s just like a garlic press but much larger. It will take quite a few loads to get everything through the ricer. Squeeze the suet out into the colander, then scrape the remains out of the ricer, also into the colander.
Once you’ve processed all the chunks through the ricer, press the fat through the colander with the back of a spoon. Remove the paper towel and all the scraps left in it and dispose of them. Put a clean paper towel in the colander and pour the fat from the first pan through it.
NOTE: You’ll be working with extremely hot fat, which can cause serious burns. Don’t try to do anything else at the same time … like take pictures. Yep, I took a break from shooting pictures. I didn’t want a repeat of the tempura flounder incident. Next time I do suet I’ll get help with the camera work.
If you’re re-using tallow, you should have stored it in a wide-mouth container, not something with a narrow opening. Otherwise you’ll have to melt it in the container to get it out. As you can see in the next photo, I kept mine in two small bowls.
A half-minute in the microwave softened up the edge of the tallow just enough to slip out of the bowls.
With the frying pan over medium heat, the tallow started melting down within a minute or two.
Cooking with tallow
Tallow has a smoke point of about 420°. About the only cooking fat you’re likely to find at your local grocery store with a higher smoke point is pure olive oil — not extra virgin — or olive pomace oil. But olive oil is about twice as susceptible to rancidity, so you can’t re-use it the way you can with tallow.
Try to stay well below the smoke point. About 350° if you want to put a thermometer in it. Without the thermometer, you’ll know you’re getting too hot when it starts to look like water boiling. You want it more like this …
… than like this.
Set up the stovetop so that you don’t have to reach across the hot oil for anything.
You don’t want to be reaching across the pan when the tempura pops.
If you’re using a batter, like in the onion ring photo above, bits of it will keep coming loose from the food. Try to keep fishing them out as you go. If you leave bits of batter in until they burn, they can cause the entire batch of oil to go rancid.
Filtering and storing
When you’re done frying, you need to filter the oil before storing it. If you’ve cooked something with a flavorful coating, put a slice of potato in the oil for about five minutes after you take it off the heat. The potato will absorb most of the flavor out of the oil.
While the oil is still hot, set a metal colander over the bowl you’ll be storing in.
There are probably some plastic colanders that would stand up to this, but I’m not going to try it.
I have the colander at an angle so I can get the edge of the pan inside when I pour. The paper towel is a simple filter to catch all the bits of batter that were too small to pick out while you were cooking.
Carefully pour all the oil through the paper towel.
Using a silicone or wooden spatula, scrape as much of the oil out of the pan as possible. Anything you leave behind will harden like candle wax and be harder to clean. Scrape quickly, as the tallow in the paper towel will start to harden almost immediately.
Remove the colander and let it drip into the bowl …
… then lift the paper towel out by the corners and let that drip into the bowl also.
Let the tallow cool until it is hard and white, cover tightly with plastic wrap or a tight-fitting lid, and store in a cool dark place until the next time you need it.
Want more like this? For more recipes like this, that you can hold right in your hands, and write on, take notes, tear pages out if you want (Gosh, you're tough on books, aren't you?) you might be interested in How To Cook Like Your Grandmother, 2nd edition, Illustrated. Or to learn your way around the kitchen, check out Starting From Scratch: The Owner's Manual for Your Kitchen.