January 13, 2015

Fat Tuesday: World's Simplest Tallow

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you’ve probably realized by now that there are few things I like talking about more than fat. Especially delicious animal fat, and even more especially, that of ruminant animals, such as cows and sheep. These fats are predominantly saturated and monounsaturated, which makes them stable for high-heat cooking, and of course, there’s the most important point: they’re delicious!

I have written in detail about beef tallow before. To people who are new to the traditional food scene—and sometimes even to us old hands—rendering tallow and lard at home can seem like a daunting prospect. The good news is, you don’t have to do it all that often to get a supply that will last you a while. If you make a big batch of stock, depending on the types of bones you use, you could end up with lots and lots of tallow, which you can store in the freezer for a long time. (In addition to the “boney bones,” you’ll want some meaty bits, too. They’ll give the stock more flavor, and if you choose fatty shanks, maybe some short ribs, and other fatty pieces, all that gorgeous fat will render out during the simmering process and you’ll be left with lots of golden delicious fat. And you thought that phrase was only for apples!)

And the even better news is, if you’re not of a mind to do it yourself, more and more small, family-owned, grass-based farms are selling lard and tallow on the farmstead and also at farmers’ markets. (With more and more people getting into this kind of thing these days, you can even order the good stuff online now.) So being skittish about the DIY process is no excuse to keep cooking with soybean or corn oil.

But here’s the best news of all: getting your hands on good ruminant tallow is as simple as cooking some gound beef or lamb in a skillet, and reserving the fat in a separate container, rather than throwing it away, the way fifty years of “fat-is-bad” propaganda have conditioned us to do. (Remember: fat isn’t bat. Not even saturated fat.)

I’m not kidding! It really is that simple. Here’s how it works:

Get your hands on a couple pounds of grass-fed ground beef or lamb. Cook it in a skillet as just crumbled ground meat, or make them into meatballs or patties and bake them—the important thing is that they’re cooked in a vessel where you can collect the fat afterward, as opposed to a grill, where the fat will drip away onto the wood or coals.

Use a slotted spoon to remove the meat to a bowl or whatever container you have handy. (Just no piping hot food into plastic, m’kay? BPA-free or not, that makes me nervous.) Then, pour the hot, melted fat into a container—glass or porcelain is best—and stick it in the fridge for a while. (Use a rubber scraper/spatula to get every last drop.) The fat will rise to the top and, through the magic of refrigeration, it will harden into a solid layer that you can remove and store as you please. It’ll keep in the fridge for quite a while, but you can store it in the freezer for darn near forever. (Wherever you keep it, just wrap it tightly. Like butter, tallow can develop “off” flavors or odors if it’s stored near very strongly smelling things.)

Pan remnants from ground beef. 
Here’s how it looks while still hot. 
You can see the fat has already risen to the top.

And here’s how it looks after a few hours in the fridge. 
The fat has hardened and you can see the two layers even more clearly.

Once the fat layer has completely solidified, you can lift it right off in a disc, 
stick it in a heavy-duty freezer bag, and sock it away for when you need it.

Like I said, you can use the same process for ground meat cooked in other ways besides just crumbled in a skillet. Meat loaf and meatballs immediately come to mind. Same deal: just use a pan or baking dish that will retain the fat so you can collect it afterward. Here’s how it looked when I did this with lamb meatballs:

You best believe I saved all that gorgeous lamb fat! 
Also: line your baking sheet with foil and cleanup is as easy
as throwing the foil away! No scraping & scouring the pan!

Lamb tallow!

What can you use tallow for? Pretty much anything you’d use any other cooking fat for: frying eggs, sautéing vegetables,  searing a roast or steak. And it’s one of the best fats to use for deep-fat frying, for all you fried potato lovers out there. (Remember what I said in this review of The Big Fat Surprise: before caving to pressure from vegetarian groups in the late 1980s to switch to vegetable oils, most fast food outlets stocked their fryers with tallow.) Am I the slightest bit concerned about the acrylamides and other supposedly dangerous stuff in fried potatoes? Not one bit. (Maybe, maybe, I’d be a little wary if I were consuming these things en masse, on a daily basis, but I can’t remember the last time I had a potato chip or French fry. [Potatoes hold no interest for me. To be 100% honest with you, I’m too busy fighting off the late-night sugar demons these days. And usually losing...])

I am normally not a food purist, and I have no problem going to a regular ol’ restaurant and eating regular ol’ food. Thankfully, I have no known food intolerances that lead me to interrogate wait staff about cross-contamination, soy feeding of poultry, etc. However, I will say that, for the most part, when I am deliberately saving fat to cook with, I wouldn’t bother if I’m using conventional supermarket meat. If it’s from a grass-based farm, and I trust the source, then yeah, I’m all over it. There’s no point in  letting that fat go to waste. It’s part of “nose to tail,” after all, not to mention it’s rich in CLA—the gift nature gives us most readily in the fat of ruminant animals who consume their natural diet of grasses and greens. (Actually, once in a while, I do save the fat from regular ol’ bacon. <-- Not a food saint; not gonna apologize.)

As if getting a bit of tallow from a process you would regularly engage in anyway wasn’t enough of a boon to a real food kitchen, here is another very neat thing this ridiculously simple method will get you: gelatin! Yes, it’s true! If you reserve all of what remains in the pan after removing the cooked meat, after refrigeration, you will notice there are two distinct layers. The top is the tallow, and the bottom is the other “stuff” that leached out of the meat during cooking—most notably, gelatin.

Gelatin is a protein that’s found most abundantly in the animal bits we often discard here in the modern U.S.A.—the skin, bones, joints, hooves/feet, and other gnarly things our great-grandparents ate with gusto. How is any of this stuff ending up in a package of ground meat? Well, think about it: when meat is sent through a ginormous grinder, you have to assume little bits and pieces of bones, joints, and gristle end up in there too, and they get ground up right along with the muscle tissue.

Anyway, how can you tell this portion contains gelatin? Simple: it will have jelled! Maybe just a little bit, depending on how much of the gristly bits were in there to start, but you will notice that, for sure, the liquid portion is more solid than water. It might not have the firm consistency of jell-o, but it will be noticeably jelled to at least some degree. SCORE!!

If you are feeling especially fancy, you can strain the hot fat through a coffee filter or cheesecloth before putting it into cold storage. This will remove any of the tiny bits of meat that remain, the presence of which might cause the tallow to go bad sooner than it otherwise would. I don’t bother with this step, because I freeze my tallow, so that’s mostly a non-issue. Most farmers who render tallow & lard for sale strain it thoroughly, both for preservation purposes and because it just looks prettier when it’s in a transparent jar, and is pristine yellowish/white, without any specks of beef, lamb, or pork in it.

So next time you’re making a simple dinner employing ground meat, save the fat!!

P.S. With the lamb meatballs, I had seasoned the meat pretty heavily before cooking. (I used this one and this one this time.) No problem—all this means is that the tallow is flavored, too! This can actually be a good thing, especially if I use it to saute vegetables or cook an omelet. Extra layer of flavor built right in!

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. The fat from cooking my grass-fed beef, lamb and pork doesn't make it to a separate container for storing - gets devoured long before that! I always remember the tins of lard sitting on the kitchen bench when I was growing up, and Mum taking scoops out of them for cooking. Must have used a lot as those tins never made it to the fridge.
    A query about fat from making stock. I tend to discard the fat from my stock making as it has been cooking for 24 hours (in the slow cooker), and I'm concerned about damage done to the fats with such a long cooking time. Is this a valid concern?

    1. HA! Yeah, sometimes I just eat the fat right along with the meat when I use ground beef or pork, but in the case of the meatballs, that would have been harder. (Actually, I did dip some of the meatballs in the hot fat, which tasted amazing, but there was still plenty left over to reserve for another use.)

      I save the fat from beef stock, but if you're concerned about the heating issue, I'd steer clear of saving it from chicken stock. The chicken fat contains a higher percentage of polyunsaturated fat, but the beef & lamb is mostly saturated & monounsaturated, which stand up better to heat. (I might still *eat* the chicken fat as part of the stock/broth, but I wouldn't reserve it to cook with. That being said, my Jewish ancestors are frowning upon me right now, because schmaltz [rendered chicken fat] is one of the traditional cooking fats in that culture. Maybe because of the kosher dietary laws...chicken fat can be used in dishes where butter/cream would be prohibited. Lots of very skilled chefs -- not mention grandmas! -- use schmaltz. Same as duck fat is used in France...very similar fatty acid composition. I mean, what would French cuisine be without potatoes fried in duck fat? :) Probably just fine for light sauteing and quick frying, but I wouldn't use poultry fat for deep-fat/high-temp cooking.

      As for the damage done to the fats, like I said, the beauty of the more highly saturated fats is that they can tolerate the heat. In fact, I know plenty of "real foodies" who use tallow or lard for deep frying, and they reuse the fat a few times before discarding it. You might be cooking the stock for a long *time* in a slow cooker, but it's at a relatively lower temperature.

      And the thing is, if you were to buy lard or tallow from a butcher or farmer, how do you think *they* are rendering it? ;-) Back in the day, this was probably done by simmering slabs of fat in large quantities in big kettles, and I can't imagine that the people doing it on a larger scale than a home cook are doing it in a similar way.

    2. Many thanks for your comments and advice Amy. Will keep the fat from beef and lamb stock in the future!

  2. Hi Amy,
    I must say that I'm also a beef tallow lover. There's a farmer near me who raises pastured-beefs and doesn't know what to do of a lot of parts, namely tongues, hearts, tails and of course suet. So I have rendered about 6 pounds of pure white gold! Try to gently cook sugar snap peas in tallow: amazing! The mouthfeel is next to undescriptible. Roasting rutabagas and potatoes is also an excellent option. As I told you before, I eat a whole rye sourdough bread: as a spread on a toasted slice, it's simply heaven. I also try to reserve fats from cooking roasts or other cuts of meats to use them whenever I need fat to cook. I totally share your preoccupation about nose-to-tail eating: healthier, more ethical, more environnementaly friendly and easier on the wallet.

    And now for the 'yes, but...' part of the comment: I'm not sure we could say that beef tallow is the 'best option' for frying foods (anyway, I don't think that frying foods is necesarily a good idea to begin with) . Maybe tastewise, but healthwise, I have my reserves. I'm not talking about lipid peroxidation, but oxysterol formations. No matter how stable your fat is, if you heat it at somewhat high temperatures, you will oxidize its cholesterol (if any is present of course, as in tallow or lard (which I also render from leaf fat and backfat) as opposite to olive or coconut oil).
    Now, are exogenous oxysterols as detrimental as endogenous ones? I know you said you didn't think so about AGEs, maybe your opinion is the same concerning oxysterols...

    Anyway, that won't stop me from cooking with tallow whenever I feel like it's going to give me the taste I'm looking for. Thanks again!

  3. To be honest, I don't know about the oxidized cholesterol issue. But remember: plant foods contain sterols, too. They're not CHOLEsterol, but they are *sterols.* Would those have the same effects? No idea.