Sunday, September 1, 2013

Adventures with Tallow

The first time I heard of tallow, it was while reading one of the Little House on the Prairie books as a young girl, and they were talking about bear fat.  If I thought about tallow at all, I assumed it came from bears, was used only to make candles back in the 'olden days', and that was that.

I don't know when I figured out that tallow is not just made from bears.  It can come from sheep, bison, venison, or beef and is essentially the equivalent of lard. 

Far from being a relic of the olden days, beef fat has a multitude of uses.

Tallow can be used for candles (add a wick to a container, and pour in the melted tallow) and in soapmaking.  It is also useful  for balms and salves (I've got a salve recipe at the end of this post), promotes bone strengthening, and may have cancer-preventative properties.

Tallow is useful to keep on hand when you need to get a label off a jar - just rub a bit of tallow all over the glued on label, and let it sit for about a minute.  The label will then rub right off, along with most or all of the adhesive with very little effort.

Tallow was used traditionally (and still can be) to clean metallic surfaces, including iron.  It not only removes dirt and restores shine, but the oiliness creates a shield against oxidization (rust).

Tallow mixed with bird seed can be used to make simple birdfeeder.  Press the mixture into some pretty molds, and you've got some lovely outdoor decor that will keep your birds fed and content.

Like lard, you can, of course, cook with it. It has a high smoke point, making it great for frying foods. Remember back when everyone swore McDonalds made the best French fries?  They were utilizing tallow in their cooking oil.  The tallow gives the food a subtly rich taste you will never get from vegetable cooking oil, so that they taste good even after they've stopped being piping hot.  And it takes fried 'junk food' into the territory of being something with actual nutritious value.

Also like lard, tallow can be used in baking.  Before Crisco, there was lard and tallow keeping baked goods light and fluffy.  I haven't tried tallow for this purpose (we are no longer eating grain products), but biscuits, pie crusts and tortillas done with lard taste amazingly better than those made with processed vegetable oils, and I have little reason to think those done with tallow would be much different.  As we have come to realize the negative health effects of eating vegetable oils, it's good to know that stepping away from them to older ways also returns better tasting food!

So why am I chattering about tallow?  Because I rendered my own tallow for the first time this week!  On our last excursion to the farm for our meat for the month, I picked up a big package of beef fat, and another big package of pork fat (I'll be doing lard soon). 

[Sidenote: If you have a good source of pastured grass-fed meat, I cannot encourage you enough to buy the cheap stuff - the bones and the fat.  These will give you a huge bang for your buck, because they are full of nutrients and allow you to stretch out that more expensive meat, through broths and cooking fats  that actually contain things your body needs for good health, and makes everything taste wonderful.  This is  the real secret to frugal living:  done right, it feels decadent!]

Now, I'd never done this before, and I was more than a little intimidated.  I think I made it harder for myself than I had to, too - but that's what first tries are for! To make mistakes you don't have to repeat once you know.

I forgot to snap pictures along the way - I'll be sure and do  that step by step when I do the lard, because it's exactly the same process.

What I had was gigantic sections of fat - some of it 6 inches thick. It was mostly hard, about the consistency of cheddar cheese, and some more like a block of parmesan, and much of it had a thin layer of flesh still attached, or a thin ribbon of meat running through the middle.  Now what I read was that you needed to get all of that stuff off, so I cut and cut and chopped, and sliced away bits for well over an hour, and by the end of all that, my feet were tired, my hands were sore, and I was starting to understand very clearly why Crisco replaced animal fats.

Eventually it was done - I put the fat into a stock pot on low to slowly melt (this is all rendering is), and wondered what to do with all those scraps - I covered them in a container and refrigerated them while I thought about it.

I took a break (noting that my hands, while a bit sore, were also delightfully soft), and posted a note on Facebook about this, when a couple of my friends who are actually farmers responded and said they didn't really do all that - just run the fat through a food processor - shredding it up lets it melt a lot faster - and all the meaty bits will just cook and float to the surface so they can be skimmed off.  And also, they stressed that with a bit of salt, those meaty bits were awesome snacking.

So do it their way, not mine!  I will be, next time I do this.

Meanwhile, my fat was slowly melting down (it took hours and kept me up well into the night - next time I'm shredding the fat!), and the left behind cracklings were indeed very tasty. 

Melted tallow in small jars

Once the fat had been rendered, and the meaty bits skimmed off, I ran the fat through a wire fine mesh strainer into a container, and then from there through a smaller strainer into 1 cup jars.  Some people recommend cheesecloth, and to ensure nothing gets in that might become rancid, that's probably a good idea. I didn't have any, so I'll be storing mine in the refrigerator to be on the safe side.  Really pure tallow is shelf stable.

This represents about half of the tallow I got - and I'm positive I'd have gotten more if I hadn't been so fastidious about picking through it first.

As to all of those bits - I dumped them into the stockpot after I was done, and let them melt slowly and wound up with another couple cups of tallow, along with a lot of crunchy, tasty meaty bits which are, indeed, quite delicious with a sprinkle of salt.

Some of the meatier bits will wind up in our dog's mouth as treats over the next couple of days (she was being driven quite mad by all the broth and fat smells the last couple weeks), and some will end up on salads as a topping, like bacon bits.  The rest is going into the freezer, and the next time I want some substitute for breadcrumbs, I'm going to grind these up in the food process and use them, instead.

Am I tickled that I figured out how not to waste any of it? Oh yes, I am.  Ma Ingalls would be proud.

One last thing - in figuring all this out, I was doing some reading and came across this from Weston-Price about using tallow for skin care: Traditional Nourishing and Healing Skin Care.  This is well worth taking  the time to read, in order to understand why tallow is useful as a skin care product. 

After reading I decided to try to make a little bit of skin salve while I was at it. 

Tallow Olive Oil Balm

1/4 cup melted beef tallow
2 T. Olive oil
5 drops essential oil (use an oil safe to consume, and with properties that are pleasant smelling and with beneficial skin care qualities)

Mix together, and pour into a small container. When set, it will be softer than plain tallow.  This can be used for dry, chapped or chafed skin, dry lips, skin rashes and excema.

I very much wish my daughter lived still lived near me to test this - she has chronic skin issues, and it would be wonderful to find something that let her reduce her usage of corticosteroids. 

I put tea tree oil (an anti-fungal) into my test batch, because it's what I had on hand.  It was enough to mask the (very mild) 'meaty' scent of t he tallow.

I'll be picking up a few essential oils this next month, and want to make up a little in something more all-purpose and nice smelling.  I'm thinking, after reading the above, that a version with menthol (cooling), and one with capsaisin (heating), might make a good arthritis pain relieve salve, too.  I'm looking forward to experimenting more with this!

Also - it's been three days now since my frenzy of chopping the beef fat, and my hands are still silky smooth, and the bits I rubbed on my lips (mm tasty) have resulted in my lips not feeling crackly and flaky for the first time in months.  And I did that one time, three days ago. This stuff is a real winner!


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  2. I have never heard of Tallow before this. It is something new for me to learn about.
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