How to Render Oil from Beef Fat

Reader Contribution by Ilene White Freedman and House In The Woods Farm
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My freezer is full of beef fat and I finally rendered tallow for cooking oil. We raise some pastured beef for our family, and while we enjoy the grass-fed beef, we have been slower to learn the art of cooking with homemade oil.  I pay top dollar for organic vegetable oils and here I’ve got bags of animal fat in my freezer. Why have I been avoiding them?

First, it’s a new skill for me to render oil, albeit a simple one, but something I’ve never done before. It often takes extra motivation to try something new. It might hang out on my wish list for a year before finally making it to the “do it today” list. Then, after I know how to do it, it is easier to integrate into daily living.

It turns out that rendering oil is as simple as heating the fat at a low temperature for a long time and then straining it into a jar. Just like that, a jar of lovely pure cooking oil. Well, why didn’t you say so?!

Rethinking the War on Animal Fats

Second, I didn’t grow up using animal fats except butter. I was raised in the 1970s and 80s, when the oil industry was busy selling us “healthier” oils than butter, tallow, and lard — those were farm products. It might have been my grandmother’s generation that raised the animals and milk to create these foods, but industry worked hard to convince those families that purchased vegetable oils were healthier than the free lard from the meat freezer.

Michael Pollan writes in his book In Defense of Food:

Part of what drove my grandparents’ food culture from the American table was official scientific opinion, which, beginning in the 1960s, decided that animal fat was a deadly substance. And then there were the food manufacturers, which stood to make very little money from my grandmother’s cooking, because she was doing so much of it from scratch— up to and including rendering her own cooking fats. Amplifying the “latest science,” they managed to sell her daughter on the virtues of hydrogenated vegetable oils, the ones that we’re now learning may be, well, deadly substances.

Pollan dedicates a good part of chapter tracing the curvy line of “scientific” health claims that the public is supposed to follow, from non-fat to low-fat and all over the place. The only consistent healthy vegetable oil claim I can see is about extra-virgin olive oil. Olive oil is good for you, but its heating point it so low that this oil is best reserved for raw application, such as in salad dressing, adding to hummus, and drizzling over bread. Now I have been reading about fraud in the olive oil industry for passing off lower quality oils as extra-virgin olive oil, as well as claims of completely fake olive oil made from other vegetable oils.  

Reading Pollan’s review of the history of oil and marketing tricks of the food industry, I feel even more compelled to rebel from the system to produce homemade oils. I was equally empowered to make my own mayonnaise when I learned more about the food industry history. As I produce eggs, meat and animal fat along with plenty of organic vegetables, this is how it used to be done on family farms. It is time to bring these products back home.  

Here is an excerpt from Pollan’s book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. For a little deeper understanding of different kinds of oils and their health qualities, the Weston Price Foundation has a comprehensive review of oils: The Skinny on Fats.

Rendering Tallow for Homemade Cooking Oil

I used a MOTHER EARTH NEWS article as my guide in rendering tallow.

I put the chunks of fat into a big turkey roaster with the top on, heated in the oven at 225 degrees Fahrenheit for hours to slowly melt the chopped beef fat. I think it would be safe to use an uncovered glass casserole dish, but I was making sure it didn’t splatter all over the oven.

The covered container worked fine, but my guide says to keep it uncovered and I’ll do that next time. You want a wide container for more surface area, making the turkey pan an ideal choice. Cast iron would also work well, or a heavy casserole dish.

The low-heat technique worked great and produced beautiful buttery yellow oil. I hardly needed to strain it as I poured it into a jar.

“Slow and low” is the most effective technique. Patience is worth it with rendering oil. I would avoid instructions that recommend high temperatures, as high as 400 degrees — you will be cooking the oil at that temperature, and probably splattering it all over, instead of melting it. It will have a stronger, cooked aroma. I read that blending it the food processing speeds up the process, but this didn’t work well for me at all. Instead of just pouring off the beautiful oil, I spent time straining the thick pulp from the oil and it wasn’t as clean an oil. It is better to start with chunks of fat, as it separates nicely and barely needs straining. I saw notes on using a crock pot and I suspect that would work well.

I am amazed that a bag of nasty-looking chunks of fat so simply created two beautiful jars of pure cooking oil. Of course, we had to test it out right away with a batch of French fries. So, it was hamburgers and French fries for dinner. Our own pastured burgers on the grill, frying up some heirloom Kennebec potatoes from last summer’s harvest, home-canned pickles from the pantry, homemade mayo, and kim chi from the fridge, and a salad from the hoophouse. It was a home-grown meal to remember — including the homegrown cooking oil!

Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Maryland. The Freedmans are one of six 2013 MOTHER EARTH NEWS Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life on the farm’s Facebook Page. For more about House in the Woods Farm, go to the House in the Woods website, and read all of Ilene’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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