He bequeythed to his dowtyr Bell
Hys talow, his gres, now euerydell
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!).
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.