Ren­der­ing Tal­low

He bequeythed to his dow­tyr Bell
Hys talow, his gres, now euery­dell
With pyr­dowy.

Tal­low is rendered beef or mut­ton fat and makes a fairly good leath­er dress­ing. It is ref­er­enced in the Lystyne Lordys Vera­ment, from which the verse above is taken. It is also used for mak­ing candles and soap and cook­ing. It is also men­tioned in the con­text of cur­ry­ing leath­er, in a ref­er­ence I can­not find now for the life of me. If any­body read­ing this can find more ref­er­ences to it’s use on leath­er and shoes in peri­od please leave a com­ment with the ref­er­ence.

It is a hard fat, sol­id at room tem­per­at­ure but it will melt enough to pen­et­rate leath­er with a bit of rub­bing. For really good pen­et­ra­tion the gentle applic­a­tion of a hairdry­er will help things along nicely. Once rendered it has little smell and will keep without refri­ger­a­tion. It should be stored in an air­tight con­tain­er to stop it oxid­ising though.

It is an excel­lent treat­ment for leath­er. It renders a nice sup­ple­ness, deep­ens and darkens the col­or and leaves a nice shine on the sur­face.


Before you start there are some things you will need to con­sider, primar­ily cleanup and waste dis­pos­al.

This pro­cess will leave you with a pile of pots, bowls and utensils covered in sol­id fat and gen­er­ate a fair bit of smelly water laden with fat and boiled meat. Fat is one of the nat­ur­al enemies of plumb­ing; if you pour hot fat-laden water down a drain it will cool and depos­it all that fat on the insides of your drain­pipes, rap­idly block­ing them. Clean­ing up after this pro­cess requires quite a lot of hot water and deter­gent to hold the fat in solu­tion, as well as tem­por­ary stor­age for the sol­id bits you’re going to be skim­ming out.

Neither mol­ten tal­low, nor boil­ing meat smell par­tic­u­larly good so in the interests of domest­ic har­mony do this either out­side on a bbq or port­able hot plate, or with a good range hood. Even with a range hood extract­or on full-blast you will stink up the kit­chen a bit (sorry honey!).

Raw Mater­i­al

The raw mater­i­al from which tal­low is rendered is beef or mut­ton suet.

Suet is the hard organ fat from cows or sheep. It is sig­ni­fic­antly harder than the sub­cu­taneous fat you get on the meat. Appar­ently tal­low rendered from mut­ton suet is slightly harder than that rendered from beef suet, but I don’t have any mut­ton suet to com­pare.

Suet can be pur­chased from any good butcher, though they may have to get it in spe­cially.

You want a real, ded­ic­ated, butcher for this. The people in the meat depart­ment of my loc­al super­mar­kets didn’t even know what suet was, let alone wheth­er or not they sold it. I got mine from the nice people at City Meats in Wel­ling­ton for NZ$4/kg. They even minced it for me. I highly recom­mend get­ting it pre-minced. It’s not essen­tial but it does make it much quick­er to render.

Three kilos was way more than I needed for shoe­mak­ing applic­a­tions, but now I have enough for candles too and I won’t have to repeat this pro­cess again any time soon.

The Ren­der­ing Pro­cess

Ren­der­ing fat like this is really easy. The pro­cess involves tak­ing the suet, which will have vari­ous leftover bits of anim­al still stuck to it, melt­ing it in water and sim­mer­ing it for a while so the fat floats to the sur­face and the greeblies sink in the water, then cool­ing it, sep­ar­at­ing the fat cake from now quite gross water and repeat­ing until the tal­low is clean. It is pos­sible that the heat has some effect on the fat as well, but I don’t know.

It is import­ant to melt it in water, rather than just melt­ing it in a pot over the stove. Melt­ing it in water gives the bits of meat and impur­it­ies some­where to go and, more import­antly, means you won’t cook the fat because you won’t be able to get it above 100°C.

Keep a close eye on the sim­mer­ing pot and be very care­ful that you do not let the pot boil over, if you boil it too hard it will boil over and spill hot mol­ten fat and gross bits of meat and scunge all over your stove. Not only is this messy it is a poten­tial fire haz­ard.

I just used a reg­u­lar sauce­pan to melt it in. I didn’t do all three kilos at once because I didn’t have a ves­sel large enough to decant it into once it had rendered for a while. Hint: don’t simply render and let it cool in a sauce­pan like this one. Sauce­pans have straight sides which makes get­ting the cake of solid­i­fied tal­low out a com­plete pain.

As it sim­mers you will accu­mu­late a lay­er of scunge and floaty bits of boiled meat on the top. Skim this off with a skim­mer or a slot­ted spoon. If you can, scoop­ing out as much of the meaty bits now helps things later on.

Once you have simmered the fat and water for a while and there isn’t any more scum devel­op­ing on the top of the mix you can decant it into a bowl to cool. Don’t cool it in the pan too much, it will take some time to settle in the bowl and the hot­ter it is going in the longer it will have to sep­ar­ate. I found sli­cing a table knife through it helped settle out the water and bits trapped in the fat lay­er

It can take sev­er­al hours to cool, and it is easi­er to get out of the bowl again if you refri­ger­ate it for a few hours first. Let it cool to room tem­per­at­ure before put­ting it in the fridge though — there is enough thermal mass here that you’ll just raise the tem­per­at­ure of your fridge to pos­sibly unsafe levels oth­er­wise, and trust me, cam­py­lob­ac­ter is no-one’s friend.

Once it has cooled you will be left with a bowl of grey smelly water with a sol­id cake of tal­low on top. Pop the cake of tal­low out and fig­ure out some way to dis­pose of the water without block­ing your drains.

As you can see in the pic­ture there are still a lot of impur­it­ies and bits of meat in the res­ult­ing tal­low cake. That’s Ok, it will take more than one round to get it clean. The next step is to break the cake up and repeat the pro­cess with clean water. I had to do it three times before it stopped improv­ing. On the second run through there were not bits on top of the tal­low but there were quite a few bits stuck to the bot­tom that were heav­ier than the mol­ten fat but light­er than water. I just scraped these off with a knife before I did the next melt.

By the end of the pro­cess I had a bunch of yel­low­ish white lumps of quite hard tal­low I remelted the whole lot in a double boil­er, being care­ful to keep water out of the mix this time and cast it into a muffin pan so it would cool in con­veni­ently stor­able lumps.

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