As I wrote yesterday’s post, I realized that I’d never actually made my own beef tallow from scratch. I’ve collected plenty of bacon grease in my day, and I’ve made schmaltz and used beef drippings from roasts as cooking fats, but never beef tallow. In fact, I almost never hear about it, even in Primal circles. It’s either lard, duck fat, or ghee getting all the attention. Hey, those are all great, delicious fats, and they deserve their prestige, but I like sticking up for the little guy. I like an underdog. In this case, of course, the little guy comes courtesy of a big cloven-hoofed ungulate.
To render beef tallow, you need to get your hands on some raw beef fat.
It’s called suet, and the best stuff for rendering is going to be solid and firm. Most suet comes from the tissue surrounding the kidneys and the loins, but any hard beef fat will do. What I did was buy steak and roast trimmings from a butcher. It wasn’t grass-fed, unfortunately, but it was from clean, organic meat from a guy who really knew his stuff. It was also incredibly inexpensive (I paid two bucks for around three pounds) and just about the only source of raw beef fat I could find on short notice. If you can find a good butcher that deals with grass-fed meat, I’d imagine buying the fat trimmings is still fairly inexpensive and completely worth the extra effort.
I don’t know whether my batch was suet or not (I suspect there was at least a bit, judging from the thick, hard pieces that felt like cold butter when you sliced into them), and it did look a little ragged and hastily thrown together, but it was still fat. I wasn’t going to let a little uncertainty slow me down, for I was armed with the knowledge that fat can always be rendered.
I threw my motley crew of beef fat onto the cutting board, grabbed my chef’s knife, and began to cut the fat into cubes. I’d read tons of contradictory information about particle size, with some recipes calling for larger, 1-inch cubes and others claiming finely diced or shredded fat got the best yield. My experience with rendering pre-shredded buffalo kidney fat was painless and easy, so I went for shredded. I figured the more surface area, the better. As I cut more and more and trimmed more and more, however, I realized that tossing a bunch of room temperature fat cubes into the food processor was asking for a congealed mess. The solution? Freeze the cubes.
So, after trimming the fat completely and removing all attached muscle meat and bloody tissue (see pic of me holding up a speck in my fingers) (this step is crucial, because meat and blood will only burn and ruin the purity of your tallow), I threw the whole lot into the freezer for a couple hours.
You don’t want completely frozen and you don’t want completely… thawed? You want the middle. You want a texture like sorbet (mmmm, beef sorbet anyone?) or cold butter. After two hours, into the processor they went, and twenty seconds of pulsing got me the shredded (yet still intact) fat I needed.
This is where I had to make a huge decision. Was I going to do a dry-render over the stove in a high quality pot, or was I going to do a wet-render and get the potentially purest tallow by boiling and then separating fat from water? I’d read about several different ways to render fat, but I chose two that seemed to make the most sense. The wet-render sounded tempting, if a bit messy and time-consuming, but I eventually passed on it. I settled on doing the traditional dry-render over super low heat on the stove top along with an oven render at 250 degrees. For both, I used reinforced cast-iron pots (from Martha Stewart, no less!) and about a pound of shredded fat in each.
The plan was to cook it long, slow, and low while noting the differences between the two methods and ultimately choosing a “winner.” The stove top fat started rendering almost right away, even with just a tiny flicker of a flame doing the heating. After about 20 minutes, the first sign of “cracklins”began to show: light brown shriveled up pieces of (former) fat bubbling around inside the newly rendered fat. I was initially worried that I was going too fast too soon, but that wasn’t the case. The cracklins were great, and they never burned. The fat remained pure and clear.
In the oven, things were slow going. I had set the timer for two hours, and an hour into it there was a decent layer of rendered fat accruing. There were no cracklins to be seen, only soggy grayish chunks of fat. An hour and a half into it, cracklins were everywhere – almost as many as in the stovetop pot. Neither pot smoked nor burned; neither source of rendering fat gave off a foul odor (although my dog did set up camp right in front of the oven, no doubt hoping for stray splatters). I was a little worried that I’d mess it up somehow, but I didn’t. Both pots of fat fully rendered without burning. The stove top took about an hour and twenty minute to fully render (1 pound, shredded, over ultra low heat), while the oven pot took closer to two hours at 250 degrees F.
I’d also read that I might have to clarify my tallow – to remove random miniscule bits, flecks of meat, crumbled up cracklin that could mar the purity of the fat. Much to my surprise, there really wasn’t a need for clarification. I used a fine mesh strainer and it was completely sufficient. The result was pure, delicious tallow that turned white in the fridge and was easy to scoop. If you look really closely, you can see some specks at the bottom of the jars, but you’d really have to stare.
From my experience, both methods work equally well. If you like stay in the kitchen and tend to your dishes, go with the stove top method. As long as you keep an eye on it and keep the fat from sticking to the bottom, your fat will render much faster this way. If you want to go do other stuff while it renders, use the oven method. Other than keeping the heat low and occasionally popping in for a quick stir and scrape, you can pretty much set the clock and forget about the rendering.
Anyone ever use the wet-render method? Got any tips for my next batch of tallow? Let me know!