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Let's Get Started Rendering Some Tallow for Soap
If you look on the label of almost any commercially available soap today, you'll see "sodium tallowate" listed as an ingredient. Yup ... the #1 ingredient used in most soaps comes from beef fat. It's cheap, it's readily available, and it makes really good soap. The lather is rich and creamy.
So how do we render beef or other animal fat into tallow? It's pretty easy. Here are the things you'll need:
- 3 to 5 pounds of fat, chopped or ground into the smallest pieces possible
- A large soap pot
- Water... and some salt
- A sieve or colander
- A large bowl
- Some large spoons
- A potato masher
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Add Water and Salt to the Pot
"Rendering" simply means melting the fat to separate it from the meat, gristle and other impurities. Place the fat into a big stew pot and add enough water to just cover the tallow. Add about 1 tablespoon of salt for every pound of fat.
You'll notice that my fat in this picture is in very small chunks. The smaller the chunks, the quicker and more efficiently the fat will render. Ask your butcher to run the fat through a grinder for you, or run it through a food processor.
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Heat the Mixture
Heat the mixture to boiling, then reduce the heat to a low simmer. The chunks will start to release liquid fat, and any meat that was left in the fat will begin to cook. Be sure to turn on the range fan because it will get smelly!
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The size of your fat chunks will determine how long you have to boil the mixture. I only had to simmer my pre-ground fat for 20 to 30 minutes. It will take longer if your chunks are larger. Just keep it simmering over low heat and stir often.
You can also mash the fat with a potato masher. This will help squeeze the oil out of the meat and chunks.
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Simmer Until the Fat Is Just Melted Tallow, Meat and Gristle
When browned meat and gristle are all that's left solid in the pot, you've gotten about all the fat you're going to get. Yes, there may be some reluctant chunks of fat and meat still floating in there, but sometimes it's just not worth the extra work to separate the fat from it. Mash the remaining meat chunks with the potato masher to get out every last drop of oil if you're up for the challenge.
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Strain the Liquid
Carefully remove the pot from the stove and pour the hot liquid through a sieve or colander into a large bowl in the sink. Just as you wouldn't pour hot wax down the drain, make sure that none of the liquid fat goes down the drain! The colander will strain out all the pieces of meat and gristle.
Lift the colander out of the big bowl. You'll notice that the water sinks to the bottom and the melted tallow rises to the top of the bowl.
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Let the Liquid Cool
Let the liquid cool to room temperature, then put the bowl in the refrigerator overnight. The tallow will form into a large white disc on top.
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Separate the Tallow
Pry up the disc of tallow using a knife or fork and put the pieces into a large bowl. What's left will be a gelatinous, gray goo. You don't want to pour this leftover liquid into the sink because there may still be some chunks and particles of fat in there that can clog your pipes. I recommend throwing it into the toilet.
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Clean the Tallow
There will likely be some loose pellet-like particles of fat on the bottom of the tallow. Use a paper towel to wipe off as much of this as possible, then wash off the rest under cool running water. Again, you don't want too much of this going down your sink drain.
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Ready to Use for Soap
Cut the tallow into small pieces and place it in a plastic freezer bag. Label the bag with the date. The tallow will keep a year or so in the freezer. Just break off a few chunks as you need them for your recipes and throw them into your soap pot!
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A Note About Fat
Any animal fat can be rendered into tallow, whether it's cow, deer, sheep or buffalo. But the quality of the fat you use will determine the quality of the tallow. Many people swear by only using "kidney suet," the fat that surrounds the cow's kidneys. It's much harder and whiter and it does make wonderful tallow. It's also really hard to find anywhere but a specialty butcher shop, and you're likely to pay a pretty penny for it. Everyday beef fat from your grocery... store butcher is likely to be free. Is kidney suet really better? Probably, but I honestly haven't noticed a big difference in the soaps I've made.