(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 26, 2008.)
Frugal is a good description for me when it comes to feeding the woodpeckers and other birds that stop by my suet feeders. They don't seem to care if my suet is plain or fancy, just that there is something in the feeder when they come by in the morning. I haven't always taken the time to render the suet. You can just stick the fat out in the feeder, but it spoils easier and drops things I don't want my dog eating--and if it hits the ground, Lucy will find it.
The hardest part of rendering may be finding the fat. As more stores go to precut meats, you are less likely to find a butcher in the back room. So the first step is to check around for a store that actually cuts their own meat. A smaller store might be just the place.
When you find a butcher, you can drop in and take a chance that there will be fat available, but I like to make a quick phone call. That way, he or she can make up a pile for me as time allows. My butcher isn't allowed to give me the fat, so I pay 10 cents a pound. One to two pounds is plenty for this learning process. (Prices may be higher during deer hunting seasons.)
When you get the beef fat home, stick it in the freezer while you gather the equipment. The fat cuts easier when it is hardened. You will need:
1. a good size skillet with lid
2. a large spoon
3. a butcher knife
4. a big bowl
5. a bread pan or cup cake tin. This is one time you don't have to grease or flour the pan.
6. metal strainer (optional)
7. waxed paper and a plastic storage bag
Get the fat out of the freezer, and with the butcher knife, cut it up. I slice it first like bread, then cut the slices up into smaller strips. It doesn't have to be perfect! Some people cut it even more, but I've not found that necessary, or I could just be lazy. Put the skillet on medium heat, and put the fat into the pan and put the lid on. While the fat is melting, stay close to the stove. If it starts spattering like bacon grease or smoking, turn the temperature down. Fat can catch fire, so be observant. I've heard that some people don't like the smell. Hmmm, it reminds me of cooking hamburgers in a skillet; to each his own. Maybe their fire was too hot?
As the fat melts, tip the pan so that the liquid gathers at one side. Use the large spoon to carefully drain out the fat, leaving the bits of meat, gristle or bone behind. If you would like to make it easier, put a metal strainer over the bowl. Spread the fat in the pan back out, and let it melt some more. When it looks like all of the fat has melted or you have enough for your project, take the pan off the heat and let it cool. The parts remaining in the pan should be thrown away. You now have a bowl of rendered fat for suet. Woo Hoo! Congratulations!
Time for a decision. Think about it while the fat cools, it will be hot! You can just pour the fat into the bread pan, cover it and stick it in the freezer or outside if it is cold. When it is firm, dump it out on wax paper and slice like bread. It helps to dip the pan in hot water, the fat should come out in one piece. It isn't the end of the world if it doesn't, jut pat it back together. The birds won't care! Put a piece of waxed paper between each slice, put in a plastic bag, close and store in the freezer. It lasts forever in the freezer. In the example, I've used cupcake tins because my bread pan is hiding today.
If you prefer, while the fat is still warm, you may add lots of goodies from your kitchen. Some suggestions are oatmeal, raisins soaked in a bit of water to plump them back up, unsalted chopped peanuts or shelled sunflower seeds.
I hope you will find this saves you lots of money for a little bit of your time. Birdie Bon Appetit!
For more information about feeding the birds and birdwatching, visit the forums on Dave's Garden!