Suet is an interesting ingredient, little known in most of the world, widely used in Britain, but most people don’t actually know what it is…
by John Pope on May 25, 2015
It seems that to many people suet is a bit of a mystery. Very few of my foreign friends have ever heard of it, and whilst the vast majority of my compatriots know that it exists, and possibly what you use it for, the majority seem to have absolutely no idea what it actually is.
I find this lack of awareness a very sad thing, because if you aren’t aware of suet then you are missing out on some of the greatest treats the British kitchen has to offer, a world of tarts, flans, mincemeat, cobblers, steamed puddings, pastry, Christmas pudding, and of course dumplings!
Here then is the truth about the ingredient that makes so many English puddings and pies taste so good. What you need to do is take a dead cow, remove the kidneys, scrape the layer of fat off of the outside, dry and shred it. All that is then left to do is stick it in a box labelled Atora, and you have a perfect pack of suet.
Admittedly this might not sound like the most appetising ingredient ever and if you try to eat it on its own you will very rapidly realise that it doesn’t taste like it either, BUT stick it in a pastry mix and magic starts to happen.
If you have a decent butcher then you might be able to track down fresh suet, but it is getting more and more difficult. Regardless, it really is so much easier to buy the packaged kind and it makes absolutely no difference to the results/taste.
Suet seems to have been around in English cookery since forever. The first written recipe calling for it that I can find is dated 1617, for Cambridge Pudding, a boiled pudding made with currants and minced dates. Things continued in a similar vein with all sorts of boiled and steamed puddings for a couple of hundred years, until the end of the seventeenth century when we started to make fruit or meat puddings wrapped in a suet pastry.
Suet became much more widely used, when a Frenchman living in Manchester, founded the worlds first factory to make shredded packaged suet. this eliminated a lot of time consuming work, without significantly increasing the cost of the ingredient.
In 1893, Gabriel Hugon sold his engraving business and set up the Atora suet factory in Manchester. There have been a change of ownership and a move to a new factory in the intervening 120 years, but the brand the popularity of suet still remain. In the UK at least, apart from supermarket own brands, Atora seem to have a virtual monopoly on the sale of suet. I don’t recall ever seeing, and a quick google has just failed to turn up any other brand available.
The non clarified kidney fat (veggie) option
Folk will tell you that there are plenty of viable alternatives to suet, but really they are just deluding themselves, nothing tastes like a pastry made with real suet.
If you really can’t use suet for any reason ethical, religious, calorie counting, or just really not liking the sound of it, then the best of the bunch of alternatives is ‘vegetable suet’ which is made, also by good old Atora, from a mixture of vegetable fats, mostly palm oil, combined with rice flour. It looks very similar, but due to different melting points of the fats it will give slightly different results than the animal based kind.
and in other news…
Apart from British humans, birds all over the place seem to be particularly fond of suet. Apart from making tallow, and yummy traditional English treats, the biggest use of suet is to make cakes containing seeds, oats and nuts to go into bird feeders – almost certainly available at a pet shop or garden centre near you.
Oh, and we shouldn’t forget explorers, specifically those wandering around in places of extreme cold. When your daily calorie intake needs to be up around the five to six thousand mark, suet is a very useful addition to help meet the high energy needs.