NOTE: An updated version of this recipe appears in my cookbook, The Ancestral Table.
Animal fat gets a bad rap this days, mostly because we’re scared of those totally-dangerous saturated fats. The old fast food joints used to cook their fries in lard (rendered pork far) or tallow (rendered beef fat, also known as suet) until the low-fat craze of the 70s forced everyone to use vegetable shortening (and their lovely, cancer-causing trans fats). I’ve looked around for animal fats to use in cooking but all I’ve found is partially-hydrogenated lard, and I’ve come to learn that the hydrogenation process, while useful because it allows for the lard to be kept at room temperature, also has trans fats. While we’re still searching for pork fat to render lard, our local Whole Foods has been more than happy to set beef fat aside for us as they trim their cuts down for sale. Within a day they had 10 lbs of beef fat for us, which I rendered into tallow the other day.
There are two ways to render fat – “wet” or “dry”. Dry rendering is simply leaving fat pieces to cook on low in a stockpot or crockpot until the fat has liquified (leaving cracklings for later), but the fat can burn and leave a bad taste in the tallow. I decided to do a wet render (which basically involves boiling the fat pieces until the liquid fat has been extracted). I found the whole experience to be surprisingly easy.
The first step is to cut away all pieces of meat from the fat, because it can spoil the tallow. Put all the fat pieces into a stockpot, and add enough water to reach the top of the fat. Simmer the fat on low for a few hours, until the fat starts to shrivel. Stir it around every 20 minutes or so.
Pour the whole shebang into a colander that’s lined with a cheesecloth, with a pot underneath. Leave the colander there for a while to let everything drip into the pot. I also moved the fat pieces around with chopsticks to loosen any liquid, which worked well.
Put the pot in the fridge overnight, and in the morning you should be able to separate the tallow from whatever water is left.
Lastly, cut the tallow up and smoosh it into a wide-mouthed jar or container for easy access. I used a cookie cutter and then shoved the leftovers down the sides of the jar. Keep it in the fridge, and it should keep for several months.
Also, I took the pieces that had a lot of meat on them and sautéed them with a little seasoning, and had them for breakfast. Pretty tasty!
In summary, I would say that if you have any access to fat, it is definitely worth your while to render your own. The only part that felt like “work” was having to cut the meat away from the fat, which took about 30 minutes. As a whole, it was a very satisfying experience and well worth the time invested.