Most of our off-grid property in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains is made up of second-growth woods of fir and cedar. We have two large ponds, and no neighbors within two miles. The woods and wetlands here are home to many kinds of wildlife, including birds.
Since we moved here in 2006, we’ve identified nearly 70 species of wild birds, some of them transients who show up only briefly on their migration routes. Others make this land their year-round home. We’ve enjoyed observing them and learning about their habits and life cycles. Once we started feeding them, though, this learning process really took off. Our homemade suet blocks are particularly popular.
What Is Suet?
Technically, the large block of hard, dry-ish fat surrounding a cow’s kidneys (“leaf fat”) is suet. Rendered, it’s called “tallow.” Before mechanical refrigeration, rendering the fat of cows and pigs was a means of extending the shelf life of this important energy source, as well as making it easier to use.
Many wild birds will eat suet, especially in winter, when the ground is covered with snow and food is scarce. Suet is a great source of energy in cold weather.
Jays and woodpeckers are consistently attracted to suet blocks. We’ve also seen red-breasted nuthatches, evening grosbeaks, black-headed grosbeaks, red-winged blackbirds, dark-eyed juncos, and an occasional spotted towhee enjoying the suet.
Commercially made suet blocks come in a variety of flavors. The wild birds do love them. In addition to skipping the nonrecyclable packaging (they’re individually wrapped, even when you buy them by the box), we thought we might save money making our own. I had recently learned to render lard, so I figured I could render suet.
Tip: As the suet cools, it will start to turn white around the edges. It will cool quickly from here on out, so be ready to stir in other ingredients. You can experiment with proportions, but a good starting point is about 4 cups of mixed seeds and nuts in a 10-by-15-inch baking pan of suet.
The two basic methods of rendering suet (or lard) are the wet method and the dry method. In the wet method, the fat goes in a large pan, and water is added to cover it by a few inches. Then, it’s slowly heated. Eventually, the fat melts in the hot water, and then the entire pot is left to cool. Because it’s less dense than water, the fat will solidify at the top. Good-quality suet will be firm enough to lift out of the pan in one piece.
The dry method, my favorite, is much the same, only with no water. (The dry method can also be done in the oven, on low heat. I’ve done this with lard, but I find the stovetop method easier.)
The advantage of the wet method is that the risk of burning the suet is almost nil. The main disadvantage is the softer texture of the suet, though this might work for you, depending on what you use it for. The dry method takes more monitoring, but you’ll end up with a firmer, dryer tallow. I recommend the dry method if you plan to use the rendered tallow for cooking.
Dry Rendering, Step by Step
1. To efficiently render suet, cut it into small pieces. The smaller the pieces, the more pure tallow you’ll get out of your rendering. I generally aim for pieces about 1⁄2 inch to 3⁄4 inch or so. I use an 8-inch chef’s knife to cut up the suet, which will seem firm, though it’s fairly easy to slice through. One end of the block will likely have some tough connective tissue, which you can peel or trim away with a sharp knife.
2. Put all the chopped suet in a large pot with a heavy bottom, and begin heating it on the stove over low heat. On our gas stove, I turn the flame as low as it will go. It’s perfectly OK for the suet to mound up above the rim; as it renders, the level will go down. Don’t cover it with a lid.
3. The amount of time the suet will take to render will depend on how much you start with. The whole pieces I get are usually 12 to 14 pounds, although my most recent one was a whopping 19 pounds! On low heat, 12 pounds of suet will take probably 4 to 5 hours to completely render. Take that into consideration when planning.
4. As the suet renders, the level of fat will go down in the pan, and you’ll start seeing liquid fat around the edges of the pan. Stir it occasionally. You can start ladling it out; I often do, since I’m usually rendering quite a bit, and this lets me get a head start on making the blocks.
5. Expect to see partially melted pieces of suet floating in there; not every last bit of the fat will render out. For suet blocks, you don’t need to strain those chunks out; they’re very soft, and even when the blocks harden, the birds will find it easy to eat. If you plan to use the tallow for making candles or for cooking, use a kitchen strainer to strain it. You can then add the soft pieces you strained out to the pans you’re using for the blocks.
Note: While the suet is rendering, it will gradually turn a light golden-brown. After most of the solid fat has rendered and it has turned color, it’s done. If you keep it on the heat, it will get darker and the flavor will change a bit, and you won’t get much more tallow out of the suet. So, save yourself some time and stop the rendering process before it gets much darker.
Even though it’s technically tallow after rending, I still call it “suet” — that’s common usage, so I’ll stick with it. Now, you’ll need to decide two things: what kind of molds or pans you’ll pour the melted fat into, and which ingredients you’ll add to your suet blocks.
A small amount of suet can be poured into one pan, or divided between molds. I know one person who uses soap-making molds. I usually render up to 15 pounds at a time, so I use 9-by-13-inch and 10-by-15-inch baking pans. Make sure your pans or molds are heat-resistant, and put the pans on sturdy cooling racks or trivets before you start pouring hot tallow into them.
What should you mix with the suet? The most popular mix on our property is sunflower seeds, millet, and cracked corn. Peanuts, pecans, and dried fruits attract some birds, but that would add to the cost of the blocks and might also attract squirrels or raccoons. Learn about your local birds and their preferences (which may change at different times of year), and use that as a starting point.
With 12 to 13 pounds of suet, you can easily make three large pans of thick suet blocks. I start ladling out the liquefied fat before the rendering process is done, mixing up one pan at a time. Don’t fill the pan or mold more than about two-thirds full. I like to wait until the suet has cooled, but not hardened, before I add the seeds and other ingredients.
After you’ve stirred in the seeds, use a spatula to even out the top of the mixture. Let it cool completely before cutting it into blocks. A paring knife works well to slice it, and a small spatula is helpful for getting the blocks out of the pan.
Suet Block Alternatives
If you have a small amount of suet and you don’t want to use a pan to make suet blocks, try repeatedly dipping large pine cones into rendered suet until they’re thickly coated; you can then roll them in seeds while the suet is still soft. Use wire or sturdy string to hang the cone. Or, drill large holes (1-inch-diameter or larger) in a log of wood, and stuff the holes with a suet mixture. Many birds like to cling to a branch or tree trunk while feeding, and we’ve found that the standard heavy-wire suet holders work just fine. Other birds appreciate a tree-branch perch added to these feeders.
Some sources recommend freezing suet blocks, but I haven’t found that to be necessary when you use good-quality suet. (If you have plenty of freezer space, though, go for it.) The melting point of suet is between 113 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit, so you’ll want to store them somewhere cool and away from sunlight.
I don’t like storing suet blocks in plastic bags. Instead, I use parchment cooking bags. They come in several sizes and are quite durable. When they do wear out, I just toss them into one of our woodstoves. The suet seems less prone to mold in parchment than in plastic bags.
Less Waste, More Backyard Birds
Learning to render your own suet is a useful skill. If you’ve raised beef cattle or purchased half a cow, you might’ve wondered what in the world to do with that big hunk of fat. Now you know! You can feel good about not letting it go to waste, and you’ll get to enjoy the company and entertainment of a variety of wild birds who will truly appreciate your efforts.
By the way, not counting our labor, we definitely save money making our own suet blocks. My husband teases me about “cooking for the wild birds,” but I don’t mind. Anything that gets me outdoors and enjoying nature is a good thing.
Victoria Redhed Miller lives with her husband, David, and a lot of wild birds on their off-grid farm in the Olympic Mountain foothills in northwest Washington. She’s the author of three books, and she’s a regular speaker at sustainable living events across the country.
Suet is also sometimes labeled “leaf fat,” but it’s always the large block of fat surrounding the kidneys of cattle. (In pigs, this kidney fat is usually referred to as “leaf fat” or “leaf lard.”) Use suet from grass-fed beef, if possible. If you know someone who raises beef cattle, ask if you can buy the suet; you can often purchase it for a nominal price. Full-service butcher shops are another good source. Don’t discount your local supermarket; if the store’s butchers cut beef, ask if they have suet. We pay $1.49 per pound for beautiful grass-fed local beef suet; we simply ask the butcher at a local natural foods store to save it for us. He’s happy to avoid cutting up and packaging that large hunk of suet!
Note: It’s possible to render other fat scraps from beef to make suet blocks, but the texture will be softer, and the suet may have a noticeable aroma.
Some home-rendered suet can have a bit of an odor. We don’t often see bears close to our house, but for several days in 2019, a large black bear came into our yard every day, attracted to the suet. After removing all the suet holders and bringing them inside for a few days, we ultimately solved this problem by raising the height of the feeders. I’m not fond of climbing a ladder to refill feeders, but at least they’re out of reach of hungry bears.
Don’t put out more suet blocks than will be consumed in a few days, particularly during warm weather. If the birds aren’t eating it, take a close look to make sure the suet block isn’t developing mold. If you do see or smell any mold, don’t bother trying to scrape it off; toss it out, somewhere where pets or wildlife won’t get into it. We’ve rarely had it happen, but when it has, I’ve re-melted the suet, mixed it with handfuls of wood shavings, and then formed it into blocks or balls to use as fire starters.
If you’re all stocked up on homemade suet blocks for the birds, but you have more fat to render, craft some candles! Visit here to learn how to make your own emergency lighting.