“As for puddings, they’re one of those rare culinary arts, along with roasting and stewing, at which the British excel. You want suet pastry to be rich but not too dry, soft but strong enough to hold in its blessed contents”
-Tom Parker Bowles, Let’s Eat Meat
Anyone who is British has heard of suet… but other nationalities don’t use it at all… and I’m afraid if you are not based in the UK you will not be able to find it, especially if you are in the USA.
However, although a familiar term, I have never really known what, exactly, suet was until I couldn’t find dumplings at my supermarket and started investigating how to make them from scratch.
What is suet?
Suet (often beef) is made from the fat around the kidneys and other organs of animals (mostly beef and mutton). The fat is removed from the meat, clarified, chopped, water is added, and it’s then boiled. Any impurities pass into the water. On cooling the water and fat separate, and the remaining fat is suet.
The smoke point of suet is 200°C.
Suet which has been rendered (simmered to get any water content to evaporate), filtered, and then often cooled and resimmered, is known as tallow, and most suet is used for this purpose. Tallow is used primarily in soap, and to make candles (industrial tallow can also be made from pig fat – lard).
Don’t confuse suet with dripping. Dripping is the cooled fat and juices remaining in the roasting tin after you’ve roasted a joint of beef. Post to come on that!
There are vegetarian forms of suet (made from refined vegetable oil), and Aunt Bessie’s (the producers of the ready made dumplings) uses one of these… and the Aunt Bessie’s dumplings are very good.
Once opened you need to keep suet in the fridge.
What is lard?
Lard, on the other hand, is pig fat either treated to eliminate the impurities or untreated in its natural state. Its smoke point is reached at 188ºC as opposed to 200°C for suet which means that suet will produce slightly crispier chips (see comment below). Both will produce lovely crispy fried food which will have absorbed less fat than food fried in oil.
Aside from that suet and lard are very similar and can be used interchangeably.
Lard and suet are both used for making mince pies and Christmas pudding.
The highest grade is known as ‘leaf’ lard, and it comes from around the kidneys and loin – it has less taste and is more often used in baking. Lard is also often substituted for butter in pastry making as it produces flakier pastry, on the other hand it doesn’t have the wonderful rich taste of butter. You can see lard on sale at the main market in Riga in the featured image at the top of this post. Lard is used to make lardy cake – go here for more on that.
A bit more about suet
Main supplier of suet
Atora, a company improbably founded in Manchester by a Frenchman, is the main supplier of shredded suet, both animal and vegetarian.
What can you use suet for?
You can also use it to make sweet suet puddings, such as spotted dick (made with raisins, hence the ‘spotted’), treacle pudding, pond pudding (cooked with a whole lemon at its heart – follow this link for Mary Berry’s recipe) and jam roly-poly (also rather gorily known as dead man’s arm) and also rather goreily adopted as a child-murder technique in the famous Beatrix Potter story, The tale of Samuel Whiskers or the roly-poly pudding.
The best recipe for roly poly pudding (hope you’re not on a diet) is Nigella Lawson’s.
Oh for a roly poly, mother used to make
Roly poly treacle duff
Roly poly that’s the stuff
Oh, just to think about it
Makes my tummy ache
Oh cor lummy, I want my mummy
The puddings she used to make
Old music hall song
The 1977 artwork Unschlitt by Joseph Beuys, uses 20 tonnes of tallow (suet)! From Flickr.