About 4 times a year, I make soap. Making soap is one of my favorite recurring homestead chores, and I deliberately make it in small-ish batches so that I’ll have to make it again a few months later, giving me an opportunity to try a new design, recipe, or fragrance.
The main ingredient in my soap recipes is beef tallow (tallow is a hard oil, rendered from the fat of beef, deer, or sheep), which makes a nice hard bar of soap with a small bubbly lather. Although I usually include other oils in my recipe, such as coconut, olive, and castor, you could make a batch of soap out of 100% tallow and it would hold together, clean, and condition your skin. There are very few other oils that can be used at 100% concentration in soap with that result.
[Note: lard (which always refers to the rendered fat from a pig) also makes excellent soap, but in our house lard is more valuable and is reserved exclusively for cooking. We call it “white gold.”]
By the way, if you’re having any sort of “ew” reaction to the thought of beef fat being a primary ingredient in homemade soap, check the label of a bar of Dove, Ivory, or Dial soap. You’ll see the ingredient “sodium tallowate” (in addition to a whole lot of synthetic chemicals), which is beef fat. Undoubtedly you’ve been using beef fat soap for most of your life.
Tallow is an excellent moisturizer, so I also use it to make a healing hand salve with comfrey and beeswax.
In addition to skincare products, tallow has dozens of uses on the homestead, and these are just a few:
- lubrication, such as greasing the large iron screw on our apple press a couple of times a year to prevent it from rusting (farmers have also used it for centuries during lambing and calving when they need to grease up to assist in labor)
- waterproofing and conditioning leather
- conditioning cracked and weathered wood
- suet birdseed patties for the chickens in winter
When I really think about it, tallow is a bit of a miracle product, and it’s really the foundation of many homestead products. Even more miraculous, it’s a byproduct that many butchers and consumers throw away, so it can often be found for very cheap.
One important note: not all fat is created equal. If you’re going to use tallow for any skincare or food use, it should be from grassfed beef. The fat of an animal holds the nutrients and/or toxins of whatever it ate while it was living. Fat rendered from feedlot beef will be yellow, tough, and stinky, and if that’s not enough to convince you, it also lacks Vitamin E (important for skin health), linoleic acid (thought to reduce heart disease and cancer), and omega-3 fatty acids. That’s all stuff you want in your beef fat.
Josh and I buy a quarter of a cow once a year, and in addition to the fat that comes with my order of beef, I get additional packages from the rancher, who says that most of her customers don’t want it. If you don’t have a farmer to ask, try calling the local butcher shop. They’ll often save the trimmings for you from other customers who don’t want it.
How to Render Tallow (or lard, it’s the same process)
Rendering tallow is not complicated and requires no special equipment, though a crockpot and a food processor are helpful.
1. The beef fat will probably arrive in irregularly shaped lumps. There will be some meat attached, and some of the fat will have a lot of connective tissue. If it’s frozen, thaw partially; if it’s thawed, put it in the freezer for an hour.
2. Trim off any bits of meat still attached to the fat, as the meat can make the tallow go rancid. We feed these trimmed bits to our chickens.
3. Chop into chunks ~ 1 inch square and blend in a food processor. You could also run through a meat grinder, if you have one. If you don’t have a food processor or meat grinder, then chop it as finely as your patience will allow. The fat in the photo below has gotten too warm, which caused the food processor to blend it into a paste. This situation is messy and not ideal. If the fat is still partially frozen, it should quickly blend into pea-size pieces.
4. Dump into the crockpot, set to low. Stir every couple of hours. If you’re doing this on the stove, add some water in the bottom of the pot to prevent scorching or use a double boiler.
5. The fat will begin to render into a light golden liquid, while the remaining solids begin to solidify and turn brown. The crispy bits are known as the cracklins. When the cracklins are uniform golden/light brown (this takes 7-9 hours in my crockpot with ~4 lbs of fat), strain the hot oil and cracklins through a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth.
6. Pour the strained liquid into a container. Wide-mouth glass jars and used yogurt containers work well for storage.
Tallow will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of months, and at least a year in the freezer. After a year it will take on odd freezer flavors and I probably wouldn’t use it for cooking, but it would be fine for non-food uses, of which there are many.
We feed the leftover cracklins to our chickens (over the course of a few days so they don’t make themselves sick), and if you’ve ever doubted the chicken’s kinship to a dinosaur, you will become a believer. Some people like to add salt and eat these crispy bits.
Do your plumbing a favor and remove as much oil and fat from the food processor and crockpot as you can with paper towels and save these in a ziplock bag. They make excellent firestarters for the grill or fireplace.
What do you use tallow for??? What did your grandma use it for? If you haven’t made it, will you try?