Suet is saturated fat that is used in many traditional British recipes, such as steamed puddings, pastry, and sweet mincemeat. Meat suet adds a dark and rich flavoring to dishes like meat pies, while vegetarian suet is used for lighter foods.
What Is Suet?
Suet is made from the fat that surrounds the kidneys of animals (mostly cows and mutton). The fat is removed from the meat, clarified, chopped, and then boiled in water, which removes any impurities. Upon cooling, the water and fat separate and the remaining fat is suet. Suet has a melting point of between 113 F and 122 F, and a congelation of 98.6 F and 104 F. Its high smoke point makes it perfect for deep frying and pastry.
Rendered suet is suet that has been heated to the melting point. It is typically made into tallow and used in some recipes; tallow is also an ingredient in soap and bird food.
How to Cook Suet
To make your own suet, you'll need to purchase the "suet knobs" of animals. Your butcher may have some, but it's more likely you will have to special order it: the suet is typically removed from the carcass after slaughter and therefore doesn't usually get to market.
Cook suet in a heavy saucepan over moderately low heat until it's melted, clear, and golden (about 20 minutes). Pour the rendered suet through a fine sieve into a bowl. Allow it to cool, then freeze the suet until it is firm and white. Used it finely chopped or grated in your recipes and refrigerate or freeze the unused portions.
What Does Suet Taste Like?
Fresh suet has a mild, bland taste, a slightly meaty smell, and a dry, crumbly texture. When it's incorporated into sweet dishes—what the British call "puddings"— it imparts a distinct richness yet somehow avoids making them taste like beef. When used in pie crusts, suet produces a flaky and crispy texture that makes a good base for a wet filling. A combination of butter and suet creates both the flavor and texture you would want in sweet pie crusts, but for a rustic meat pie suet alone would be more appropriate.
Alternatives to Suet in Your Cooking
You can use a suet alternative in your cooking, but you may not get quite the same results as you would get from the real thing. Still, there are some decent substitutes that will get you close.
Some recipes recommend using frozen butter as a substitute for suet, but this is risky as the butter melts much faster than suet and your dish will become greasy and heavy.
If you can't find suet or you just don't want to use it, try shortening instead. One of the advantages of using vegetable shortening is that it is suitable for vegetarian dishes. Before using it, freeze the shortening until it is very firm. Once frozen, grate on a large holed grater so you get more chunky pieces. Once grated, freeze again and only use when you are ready to mix into your recipe. You can also pulse the frozen, grated shortening in a food processor which will clump the shortening and again, more resembles real suet.
Use your frozen, grated shortening as you would in any recipe calling for suet. You can also make the alternative suet in advance and keep it frozen in bags in the freezer if you are going to use it regularly. It will only keep for a month or two at most.
The British term both their savory dishes and desserts as "pudding". Each of these recipes calls for suet, in either the meat or vegetarian form:
Where to Buy Suet
You might find meat suet in the grocery store but you can also find it in specialty British food shops or online. Ready-made vegetarian alternatives are also available in leading supermarkets. Look for the brand Atora for both the meat and vegetarian versions.
Suet should be kept in the refrigerator and used within a few days or you can store it in the freezer, in freezer bags, where it will keep for several months. Rendered suet also will keep for several months at room temperature.
Nutrition and Benefits of Suet
Per ounce, beef suet has 242 calories, 27 grams of fat (including 15 grams of saturated fat) and .4 grams of protein. An ounce of vegetable suet also contains over 200 calories and about 24 grams of fat, but no sodium and no carbohydrates (nor any antioxidants or vitamins). As part of a meal prepared with whole foods, vegetable suet can contribute to more natural cooking, which can improve overall health.