In search of suet

3 December 2013

Christmas puddings and mincemeat pies both require suet, the fat taken from around the kidneys of a cow or sheep. Butter can’t be substituted, because it has a lower melting point than suet and therefore produces a heavier, greasier pudding. (Trust me: I have tried this.) Vegetable shortening has the right melting point but the wrong congealing point. Vegetable “suet” does exist, but it doesn’t behave quite like the real thing, and furthermore it is hydrogenated and as such contains trans fats. Trans fats are so unhealthy that, at the time of writing, the US Food and Drug Administration is planning to ban them. So, if you want to make light and fluffy Christmas treats that won’t kill you, you must use the flesh of an animal.

There’s just one problem: no one sells packaged suet in New Zealand anymore. Last year we used a beef suet product called Shreddo for our Christmas baking, but it is no longer to be found in supermarkets, production evidently having ceased. I also haven’t been able to find any British brands of suet, like Atora (though you can easily find their vegetable suet), possibly because beef imports from the EU are restricted due to concerns about mad cow disease.

There is, however, a way to make your own suet at home. Be warned: it is time-consuming, and you must be willing to get your hands rather meaty. Go to a good butcher and ask for about twice as much suet as you will need for baking. (For example, I needed about 400 g of suet for one pudding and a batch of mincemeat, so I ordered one kilogram of suet.) The suet will most likely be extremely cheap, or even free: only freakishly devoted foodies order it, so butchers usually throw suet out. This means that you should call ahead to place an order, since your butcher probably won’t hold any in stock.

The suet from your butcher will still have gristle, meat, and blood vessels attached to the fat. In my experience, the best way to isolate the fat is to use your hands: dig around until you find hard, crumbly lumps of white fat, and pull them away from the surrounding membranes. Discard the greasy fat that doesn’t crumble. You will probably end up throwing out at least half of the stuff that your butcher gives you. Next, put the pieces of fat into a food processor with some cornflour (I used 2 tbsp for 400 g of fat), and whiz them until you have fine crumbs. Although the texture will be identical to packaged suet like Shreddo, it will probably have a slightly pink hue. Don’t be scared: it works perfectly. Use it exactly as you would packaged suet, though note that if a recipe specifically asks for fresh suet you should omit the cornflour so as not to alter the proportions.

If you render suet, it becomes tallow. Do not render your suet unless your recipe calls for tallow. (Naturally, if you are indeed planning to render the suet, you don’t need to add cornflour or break up the suet in the food processor.)

By the way, if you are unsure which Christmas baking recipes to follow, I highly recommend Delia Smith’s traditional pudding and mincemeat. Note that Christmas cakes should always use butter rather than suet, which is a convenient way to make vegetarians feel included in the annual ritual sacrifice.

  • Home-made suet
    Home-made suet...

    Christmas mince pie
    ...and the resulting mincemeat, in pie form.