We’ve been eating suet for millennia but has recently been replaced with other fats. In this article, we’ll look at what suet actually is, how it compares to other fats, what it’s used for and the surprising health benefits that are only just being understood.
What is suet anyway?
Suet is the fat found around the kidneys and loin areas of ruminant animals (Ruminants are herbivore mammals). The suet you find in butchers is usually from either a cow or sheep. In fact, you may be lucky enough to get lamb kidneys with the suet still attached if you ask your butcher nicely.
At room temperature it’s in a solid-state with a slightly off white colour – a general rule is the whiter the fresher. The suet from a lamb or mutton is almost cute compared to the slab you get from a cow or ox.
Interesting fact… suet from cows/oxen and sheep/mutton is not Kosher as this fat is offered as sacrifices at Jewish temples.
Tallow is rendered suet. Rendering is a process of separating the liquid fat from the solid meat using heat. The remaining meat will go crispy and is called cracklings, which – with a pinch of salt – is ridiculously tasty as a snack or side to a meal. There are plenty of tallow recipes to be found online such as this one.
The remaining liquid will go solid at room temperature and can be stored un-refrigerated for up to 3 months. Before vegetable and seed oils started appearing in our cupboards, tallow – along with lard (rendered pig fat) – would be the main fats used for cooking, not a vegetable or seed oil in sight.
Coincidentally, back in these days, there was little in the way of heart disease, diabetes and many other metabolic diseases despite a much higher consumption of these animal fats and lower consumption of plant-based fats… isn’t that food for thought.
How it Compares to Other Fats
With the exception of coconut oil, suet has the highest saturated fat content of any other fat at 52g per 100g. And again with the exception of coconut oil, has the lowest level of polyunsaturated fat at 3g per 100g.
Being mostly saturated fat with stable fully saturated carbon structures – which I talk more about on this post about saturated fats – is the reason why it stays solid at room temperature.
Coconut oil is a unique plant-based fat and the highest content of saturated fat that we know of, coming in at a whopping 83g per 100g. Coconut oil aside, it’s generally animal-based fats that are higher in saturated and lower in polyunsaturated fat. That fact makes animal fats more stable and less prone to oxidization.
A Brief History of Suet
Suet has been used in British traditional Christmas puddings dating back as far as the 15th century, although first officially recorded in an English College Pudding recipe in the 17th Century and served to Oxford and Cambridge University students.
Suet and tallow is actually very versatile stuff and not limited to just cooking. It was also used for many other applications such as medical ointments for skin rashes such as intertrigo, lamp oil, soap, making candles, engine lubricants, bio-diesel, aviation fuel and leather treatments such as dubbin and black ball.
It may sound strange to you, as it did to me, that soap can be made from animal fat or any fat for that matter. I always found it strange that soap products would promote being vegan until I learnt that soaps were traditionally made using tallow.
To make non-animal-based soaps, oils such as palm, coconut and olive are generally used.
Coconut oil – being very high in short-chain saturated fats – is so effective at cleaning due to its advanced water solubility. Although it produces plenty of suds, it strips away our body’s natural oils and leaves skin dry, requiring added moisturising ingredients to compensate.
SLS & SLES
There’s seems to be a psychological relationship between a higher foaming action of soap and the feeling of being clean.
This is where what was a simple and effective product with minimal ingredients, turns into chemistry.
Chemists figured out that sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) works extremely well as a foaming agent and starting being widely used in soaps, shampoos, toothpaste and household cleaning products.
There’s controversy over the use of SLS and SLES as they can irritate the skin of some, as well as having some inconclusive links to cancer.
As soap manufacturers moved away from tallow and started using other plant-based fats, due to their high unsaturated fat content, the shelf life is dramatically reduced. Again, the chemists come to the rescue to overcome this with the use of parabens.
Parabens are a preservative and lengthen the shelf life of beauty products. But they have received bad press in recent years due to a link to breast cancer. After being absorbed into the skin, it may disrupt hormone function by mimicking oestrogen. Too much oestrogen promotes breast cell division and tumour growth.
Back to Basics
I have to admit that when I began writing this article, I didn’t expect to be including a section on soap.
It seems to me that as we’ve moved away from using tallow and looked at using non-animal based fats – whether for vegan or any other reason – in the process of solving one problem and creating another, we’ve exposed ourselves to ever more unnatural ingredients and chemicals that may have detrimental effects to our health.
I know from my wife’s experience in trying to find beauty products that work in harmony with her skin without causing reactions, she’s on a seemingly never-ending hunt. The powers of marketing offer her a magic potion promising resolution to all her skin-related woes – usually at a high cost – only to be let down time and again.
I think there’s a big element of what we put into our body resulting in our body repaying us with health and maximum beauty which I wrote about in my bone broth post. But, perhaps as well as what we put in our body, equally important is what we put on our body. As irony would have it, the answer may land on animal products.
Just as nose to tail eating provides the perfect ratios of nutrients for us to reach our maximum health potential, it appears that soap made from tallow provides the perfect ratio of fats to clean our skin and hair without disrupting our skin’s natural oils. It works in harmony.
The great thing is that there are minimal ingredients and no harsh chemicals. The craze these days are to have products as natural as possible… no this chemical… no that toxin. Yet the original tallow based soaps never had these things.
I can’t help but think we need to just re-group and bring it back to basics. We went off on a well-intentioned tangent but let’s get back on track.
Plus, it complements the nose to tail philosophy that Offally Good is all about. Suet is classed as a waste product due to its unpopularity in recent years so making soap helps in leaving as little to waste as possible paying full respect to the sacrificed animal.
Suet in Food
As well as getting suet in its pure form, you can also purchase it in a pre-shredded form, which would be more widely recognised by most. Atora being the most popular supplier, it comes in a box with a dusting of flour for added preservation.
As convenient as pre-shredded suet is, why not ask your butcher for the real thing? He will practically give the stuff to you and you’ll at least know it’s come from a good source.
Due to the high melting point of suet, it softens much later in the cooking process than other fats leaving air pockets creating a lightness unrivalled by any other pastry.
Good Ole’ English Puddings
There’s a reason why England is well renowned for its puddings both sweet and savoury. The use of shredded suet in such delights as spotted dick, jam roly-poly, Christmas pudding and of course… Steak and kidney pudding is what sets them apart from just flour-based puddings.
As Misson de Valbourg said, after a visit to England in 1690, “Ah what an excellent thing is an English pudding!”
Some would argue that a stew is not a stew unless it’s served with dumplings. Made simply with suet, flour and a drop of water, these small balls of gooey yumminess, perfectly suspended atop a sumptuous meat stew are the perfect finishing touch for a dance of taste and texture sensations.
Low-Carb & Gluten-Free Options
The above options are not for the carb & gluten dodgers among us. But that doesn’t mean we have to miss out on the action.
If you’ve made your own burgers and they end up dry, simply grate some suet and add to the mix for the juiciest burgers you’ve ever made.
I mentioned these above but you don’t need to go through the whole tallow making process to get these little nuggets. I cut the suet into small pieces around 1cm cubes. Fry them on a medium heat until they go clear and start to crisp up. It takes no longer than 10 minutes. These are a favourite in my house.
There will be a load of lovely liquid fat that you should save for your next roast or fry-up.
Is Suet Healthy?
At this point, you may be thinking I’m crazy stating that suet has health benefits. Up until 2016, I was under the impression that saturated animal fats are bad for our health and we should be replacing them with unsaturated vegetable and seed oils and spreads.
I won’t go into too much detail here but I’ve written more about this here.
Believe it or not, there is no solid evidence to back up the claims that saturated animal fats are bad and unsaturated plant-based fats are good as we’ve been lead to believe.
Back in the 1950s, President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack which lead to a mad panic to figure how and why this happened.
In stepped a scientist called Ancel Keys who hypothesised that – following the discovery of cholesterol in blocked arteries – cholesterol and saturated fat from the food we eat must be causing the problem.
He very quickly managed to spread the word and convince people that this must be the case and the narrative was born. From that narrative, dietary advice was re-written and low-fat industries were formed, all before any thorough trials were carried out to confirm that his hypothesis was correct.
Since then, many trials have been conducted and their results twisted to fit the narrative. Those that didn’t were buried or given no publicity and published in obscure journals. All the while, heart disease has been rising ever since.
A Moment of Clarity
Back in 2016, after I suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) for many years, I was desperate for relief. I discovered the low carb diet which is naturally high in saturated animal fats. At that point, I didn’t care if I had to go against the common advice of low fat… I felt I had nothing left to lose.
Miraculously, within a couple of weeks, most of my symptoms vanished. I was no longer tired and battling to get through the day. My depression and anxiety lifted and I began enjoying life again. My brain started working, the fog cleared and memory returned. It was like magic, better than any western medication.
Since then, it’s become so crystal clear to me that we’ve been lead in the wrong direction.
Forget what the scientists and doctors tell us… I like to use a bit of common sense.
What would we have eaten ancestrally? What would’ve been available to us before we had Tesco and KFC available 24/7?
It’s obvious when we think about it in this way, I rant more about it here.
Consuming animals have been an important part of our existence and progress on this planet… it’s what our body wants, needs and craves.
Saturated animal fats and in this case, suet, isn’t bad for us, they are essential for us. Without them, our body will struggle. Do not fear it, embrace it just as our ancestors did.
The Surprising Health Benefits of Suet
Recently, there’s been lots of talk around linoleic acid, found in vegetable and seed oils, and stearic acid, found in animal fats such as suet and tallow.
In the low carb, keto, paleo and carnivore communities, it’s common knowledge that man-made industrial vegetable and seed oils and spreads are bad news for our health and we should be not be allowing these to get anywhere near our mouths.
But, it’s now being understood that there is a much stronger correlation between the consumption of these horrible fats and the metabolic diseases we’re suffering than with anything else such as sugar or processed foods.
There’s a theory that these polyunsaturated fats may have started the fire and that our high consumption of sugar and junk food is just fuelling the flames.
The science behind this is very complicated but at a basic level, vegetable and seed oils and spreads are thought to encourage our fat cells to keep filling up, getting bigger and bigger. That is until they can’t fill up any more and end up bursting and spewing out its contents. When this happens it’s essentially when our metabolism is broken and we get sick.
On the other hand, when we consume animal fats, our fat cells do the opposite. Instead of holding onto fat, it releases it in a controlled manner to be used as fuel as required by our body.
If you find this as fascinating as I do, I encourage you to check out Dr Paul Saladino and his many recent podcasts talking all about this.
Suet and the rendered form, tallow, have many uses from food to fuel.
Tallow soap – which was widely used but is now replaced with plant-based soaps – may actually be perfect for cleaning us humans without causing cancer, irritations, reactions or dryness.
Animal fats have been branded a villain in recent years and replaced with man-made industrial vegetable and seeds oils in the hope to improve general health with questionable results.
These man-made oils may actually be the spark that’s ignited our deteriorating health with animal fats being the option to bring us back to health, possibly.
So, if you’ve not tried suet before or have been nervous of saturated fats, I hope this gives makes you reconsider and give it a go and if you do, I hope you enjoy if as much as I do.
Have a nutritious day!
There you have it! Just a reminder that I’m no doctor, dietitian or any other profession for that matter. I’m simply a bearer of information for you to do what you want with; question it, research it, erase it from your mind, you are in charge of you.