Confession #1: I’ve long had a fear of making soap. Lye seems scary. Chemistry feels complicated. But everyone I know swears it’s not a big deal and winds up being a lot of fun.
Confession #2: I hate wasting any part of any animal we raise, fish, or hunt. The level of obligation I feel to these animals to use and respect every part of them is pretty intense.
So, it seems like I could deal with #2 by getting over #1, right? Because to make soap, you need a fat — and that would give me a use for all the lovely fat that comes with each animal. Plus, we’re pretty committed to not having soaps here on our property with anything in them that is questionable for the environment, so it makes the most sense to make our own. (Confession #3: we don’t actually ever use soap in the shower, but we do use hand soap and laundry detergent.)
Adventures in Venison Tallow
Old-Timey Tallow Ad
Of course, before you can make the soap with the fat, you first need to render the fat. If you render pig fat, you make “lard.” If you render fat from beef, lamb, goat, or just about any other critter, you get “tallow.” Although apparently chicken or goose fat when rendered is sometimes called “schmalz.” I did not make schmalz. This week, we had a bunch of venison fat on hand, so I decided to use a bit of it for my first fat rendering-tallow making experiment.
First, I did a bunch of research since I didn’t really know what I was doing, other than a general idea of heating up the fat and then filtering it. Turns out that’s really the whole idea, but I didn’t know this. Some people render fat in the oven and some in the slow cooker. I found a few people doing it in cast iron pans and that’s the method I decided to try…since I don’t currently have a pot (it’s still in Washington along with other things of ours…like our HPMDU, but that’s another story) and we didn’t have enough sunshine for me to run my Instant Pot (which can be a slow cooker). So, cast iron on the propane burner it was.
Cutting up the fat was the only tedious part of the process, but boy did my skin end up ridiculously soft as a result! Different sources I read put more or less emphasis on the need to get the fat as clean as possible by trimming off anything with color. The concern is that leaving bits of meat tissue or non-fat tissue on the fat will lend it an unfavorable flavor or cause it to burn in the pan. That said, in all the articles I read, pretty much everyone started out really diligent in their trimming and acknowledged that they got sloppier as they went.
I was moderately diligent, but not obsessive by any means and experienced zero bad taste in the final product and zero burning. I do wish I’d been more diligent about cutting the fat into equally sized pieces, though. That would have been valuable in having it render evenly and is why I think my cracklins didn’t get crackly (more on this later).
Since I did the cast iron pan method, I had to hang out with the fat the whole rendering process so I could check it and stir it. A lot of people write about how the fat smells bad and you want to do this outside. But I didn’t think this fat smelled bad at all. It makes me wonder about how these people sourced their fat and what those animals were eating, as that can make animals and in particular their fat taste very different.
Anyway, the most important part in this step is to not burn the fat. Everyone says that results in a very bad taste, too. So I monitored the temperature and moved things around regularly. Over time, you’ll see your bits begin to change color and shrink up while the pan fills with clear liquid.
Once your bits look crispy, then they are known as “cracklins.” The trick is to render as much fat as possible out of them so they are nice and crispy without burning them. I chickened out a bit early since this was my first time. Once my cracklins cooled I could see there was still an obvious amount of fat in them. They also didn’t really look very “crackly” or appetizing, so they went to the chickens (who loved them). Next time, I’ll try them myself!
Once the cracklins are out of the pan, you’ll have a beautiful pond of liquid fat! Now you need to strain it to get all the bits out. I used a wide mouthed Mason jar as my receptacle and strained the fat through a silicone filter and a couple layers of cheesecloth. I had a tiny bit of sediment that made it into my tallow, but it really was just specks. Some people really obsess over this filtration procedure, too. Just go slow and filter more than once if you need to or with more than one layer of cloth.
Once you’ve filtered your rendered fat, you let it cool! While mine was a golden color when hot, it cooled down to a beautiful clean cream color. You can keep this on your counter just like butter since you’ve filtered out all the bits that can potentially spoil quickly on you. Or if you think it’s strange to keep butter on the counter, you can also refrigerate this and have a not-very-fun time putting this or your butter on any soft foods.
And of course the final step (and test) is to eat it! I decided to dice up an acorn squash, toss it in warmed up tallow, sprinkle a little salt and garlic powder on it, and put it in the oven to roast. And wow — it did not disappoint! The squash caramelized beautifully and there was no funky taste to the tallow at all. It almost made the squash taste like sweet potato fries. I was not sad!
I’m really happy with how this first batch turned out and the cast iron method was ridiculously simple. Next time I think I’ll give the oven rendering method a shot since it seems very hands off and easy, too, and I’d like to do a much bigger batch.
I’m currently working on acquiring more fat, in particular leaf fat (the best quality, cleanest tasting fat that is around the kidneys and other organs in that area) to work with so I end up with enough to make soap. But it turns out it’s pretty hard to purchase leaf fat in this area no matter the animal you want it from — it gets snatched up really quickly and isn’t very affordable.
Once I get that part figured out, then the next two steps will be making soap, and then taking that soap and making it into laundry detergent. Also known as fun with lye, borax, and washing soda! I will be sure to update you on this adventure, don’t worry.
Articles I used in my research that you may want to read: