In many cases, we’re used to considering only parts of beef or mutton as edible, and frequently discard much of the animal. This was not the case with many of our ancestors, who found numerous uses for various animal parts. Today many recipes still use “parts” we don’t ordinarily associate with food. For instance casings, usually pig intestines, are used throughout the world as the outside case of many sausages. Another of these “foods” for which there are multiple uses is suet, raw beef or sheep fat, usually taken from around the kidneys or the loins of the animal.
One of the principle suet uses was not related to food. Instead, suet would be melted in order to create tallow, which keeps much longer than the fat in raw form. Tallow is actually used in a variety of ways, and was frequently used as an ingredient in candles and soap, though this is now less common. Tallow may be used today in bird feed; some birds both caged and wild really enjoy it. It can also make up part of animal feed, or be used as an alternative fuel, though some object to it being considered as an animal friendly fuel since it is made from animals.
In cooking, suet has a very important place particularly in British food. Steak and kidney pudding or pie frequently has a suet made crust. This must be distinguished from lard, which is usually made of rendered pork fat. In fact the two fats produce very different types of pastry, with lard typically producing a much crispier crust.
Suet is used in a variety of holiday recipes including those for mincemeat and plum pudding. If you hate beef fat, or animal products in general, don’t despair. You can still enjoy these holiday classics without the fat, and you’ll sacrifice very little in taste. In fact a great alternative to mincemeat with this beef fat is recipes for green tomato mincemeat, often a terrific use of the last tomatoes in your garden at year’s end. If you really want to go for authenticity, you can buy vegetarian suet, which is usually made from palm oil and rice flour. It’s not truly related to the beef or mutton fat version, but it does have the quick melting point of the fat when it is derived from mutton or beef.