Is Suet not a major ingredient in US cooking?
January 25, 2018 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Because of a few comments in response to this FPP, some follow-up backchannel conversations, and general web searching (though I'm not an expert in things cuisine online), I'm confused about Suet use in the USA. As described in Wikipedia: "Suet is the raw, hard fat of beef or mutton found around the loins and kidneys." It's used in various traditional British puddings. I can't get a clear handle on US use (or non-use), so my question is: Is Suet a common ingredient in similar dishes in the USA? (examples appreciated).
posted by Wordshore to Food & Drink (62 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
In a word: no. The word "suet" is rare enough it's more likely to refer to a block of bird food in the USA.
posted by mikeh at 9:29 AM on January 25, 2018 [73 favorites]

No. I wouldn't even know where to go to buy it. However, lard, which is a fairly similar substance, is still used sometimes in baking.
posted by praemunire at 9:30 AM on January 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

More common for use in birdseed than baking here.
posted by rtha at 9:32 AM on January 25, 2018 [7 favorites]

Suet is available, but unusual in the US. I know my sister uses it in her annual traditional figgy pudding over the winter holidays. I believe she gets it from a local butcher.
posted by meinvt at 9:32 AM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am an adventurous cook who likes reading about cooking so I know what suet is, and I have seen it in grocery stores that cater to Eastern European and Central American populations, but I have never used it or touched it or purchased it. That's in Los Angeles, I'm not sure I ever saw it in Texas even at large Mexican grocery stores with in-store carnicerias.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:32 AM on January 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

(Oh, yeah, I have a block of it hanging in the back yard right now for birds. It literally only occurred to me here that it might be the same word and refer to the solid substance gluing the seeds and berries together and not some term that meant "berries, nuts, and seeds for birds".)
posted by Lyn Never at 9:36 AM on January 25, 2018 [13 favorites]

It's usually subbed out by beef lard. Tends to be a specialty item here that you need to go to an actual butcher and pre-order because it's a specific type of fat. It's not something you're going to find in any regular supermarket and the common use of 'suet' as a noun here refers to a fat and birdseed feeder block.
posted by fluttering hellfire at 9:36 AM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I got some from a Seattle butcher once while experimenting with English-style puddings; that was probably a decade ago, and I probably still have it in the deep freeze. I don't think I've ever seen a recipe that wasn't for puddings or wasn't 100% English Cuisine that called for suet.

I'm sure I could add suet into a lot of things, like a sprinkle every time I get the too-lean beef on sale and want to make burgers or meatballs.

I gather suet was profoundly cheap in the UK for a time in the 20th century; it even ended up in ice cream, swapped in for cream, which was more expensive. I cannot imagine what that tasted or felt like to eat.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:38 AM on January 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

You pretty much never see it in recipes in the US. It's obtainable, probably, but I'd guess it's a special order item from a good butcher.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 9:39 AM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

You might find it in mincemeat pie, if you can find a mincemeat pie.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:40 AM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Nope. You can find it in ethnic grocers but it's mostly wild bird food. Lard is more common, but even that is considered more of a heritage food amongst the white American middle class. I don't usually have to wonder whether the apple pie I'm eating is vegetarian, until I visit my inlaws in rural Central PA (large Amish and Mennonite communities) and then it's kind of 50/50 on whether or not there's Lard In Them Thar Crusts.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:40 AM on January 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I cannot imagine what that tasted or felt like to eat.

I used to nibble on bits of cooked then cooled suet when a child (1970s, farming country, rural Worcestershire) and, though memories are distant now I'd describe it as:

- reverse liposuction
- really, really, good

Proper traditional Christmas pudding here contains suet amongst other things (such as a small coin for a lucky person to find or an unlucky person to choke on). The suet adds both weight and density to the pudding; it takes effort to cut the pudding, and it resists, when suet is a primary ingredient. The very high calorie content and the weight combined make it an ideal food for long, cold and wet winter days. When you've eaten a traditional Christmas pudding, the suet component means you really know you've eaten it.
posted by Wordshore at 9:45 AM on January 25, 2018 [13 favorites]

Soapmaker here. Well known in soapmaking circles (I render it myself), nowhere else except bird feeders as mentioned.
posted by Melismata at 9:46 AM on January 25, 2018 [5 favorites]

You might find it in mincemeat pie, if you can find a mincemeat pie.

As I found out this year in a last-second vegan check, reading the back of a container of Nonesuch Mincemeat, the ingredients note it contains less than 2% "beef". Whatever that might mean.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:46 AM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

A video about suet for Americans wanting to cook C18th recipes, which clearly assumes that it’s a completely unfamiliar product.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 9:50 AM on January 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

It's unusual in Canada as well, if that helps. I think I had it once as a child when a neighbour was exploring their heritage. This would have been in the '70s. I haven't come across it since.
posted by TORunner at 9:51 AM on January 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

The word pudding is used differently in the US. A pudding here is something like a custard. We don't use the word in a general way for dessert as I've heard British friends use it, nor do we use it for what what you call a Christmas pudding. That kind of concoction is similar to what we might call a fruitcake. Here's an article about this.
posted by mareli at 9:53 AM on January 25, 2018 [8 favorites]

And another link on differences.
posted by mareli at 9:56 AM on January 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've seen it in a pellet form before, frozen, in the section of the meat dept that also has game meats and organic local meat.
posted by The otter lady at 10:03 AM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

It literally only occurred to me here that it might be the same word and refer to the solid substance gluing the seeds and berries together and not some term that meant "berries, nuts, and seeds for birds"

At one point I was confused by reading British recipes that included it, because I wondered what happened to all the seeds and nuts.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:06 AM on January 25, 2018 [16 favorites]

They have it in the grocery in the Northeast (possibly for bird feed?) but I never have I ever seen it here in the South.
posted by ftm at 10:13 AM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

The only time I've knowingly had it is in the pies that my german grandma makes around the holidays. It's definitely not common.
posted by joan_holloway at 10:19 AM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Until pretty recently, my vague understanding of what it was came entirely from British children's novels I read as a kid.

Also, seconding the comment upthread re the word "pudding" not being used the same way in the U.S. Most traditional British puddings, whether they contain suet or not, are virtually nonexistent here (except where they appear on the menus of specifically British-style pubs and restaurants).
posted by the return of the thin white sock at 10:20 AM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yep, birds. Sometimes you see it in "make your own birdseed ball" recipes. You basically never see it in food recipes. I am aware of it in British recipes (and, more often!, in older British novels with a lot of delicious food scenes) but if I run across it in something I want to make, I generally google for an Americanized alternative, and just skip it if there doesn't seem to be one.

You can definitely get it at butchers, even in smaller places. But you'd definitely need to call ahead and clarify, yes, you actually knew what suet was and still wanted it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:26 AM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm a confident cook and baker and only know what suet is because of watching GBBO and the resulting Anglophilia and investigation into British baking.
posted by andrewesque at 10:32 AM on January 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

Googling the words "suet recipe" from a U.S. location-- the first page of the search, ten entries, are **all** for making bird feeder balls, from the Audobon society etc. I personally have never heard of anyone eating it here in the U.S.
posted by velveeta underground at 10:38 AM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

The vast majority of Americans would say that suet is bird food, and some of them would also be aware that it's an animal fat. Making a suet cake full of birdseed and hanging it outside is the sort of thing that I associate with Scouts. I've never made one myself, but since I've heard of it, I imagine that suet is available out there, somehow.

I've heard of it being human food. I associate it with the sort of thing the Pevensies missed while in Narnia, so I probably first read it out of a book as a kid. I've never seen it in a recipe and have no sense of what role it plays. Solid fats that do get used in US cooking are butter and vegetable shortening. You'll see lard sometimes either in old recipes or modern foodie ones seeking authenticity. Rendered bacon fat, too. But I've never seen suet in a recipe for people.

So: is it good?
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:43 AM on January 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

I’ve never seen it in a supermarket here. Then again, I keep kosher, so it is not something I would seek out.
posted by Anne Neville at 10:48 AM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Does this mean that dumplings are uncommon/unknown in the USA then? Although I know they can be fudged with other forms of fat there’s no comparison with making them from suet and I wouldn’t ever bother making a beef stew if I were out of suet. Can’t say I’ve ever used it to make puddings although obviously that’s the other principal use of it.
posted by tillsbury at 10:55 AM on January 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

I actually thought suet was just a synonym for lard or tallow and not fat from a different part of the cow. Now I know! In our house (I’m from Italy and my husband is from New Hampshire) we cook a lot with salt pork - try it cubed in home fries! - but don’t use slabs of fat for much else besides bird feed.
posted by lydhre at 10:56 AM on January 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

We made steamed Christmas Pudding every year and had to find a source of suet in the Pasadena/LA area. The most reliable places were:

1) Very fancy grocery stores with a butcher on site, and the butcher will act like you are crazy and won't know how much to charge or even if they can do that, but will know what you are talking about.
2) Very inexpensive grocery stores with a majority Mexican-immigrant clientele, and after you figure out how to work around any language barrier, the butcher will shrug and ask how much you want.

So I've always assumed it was not a thing for the majority of European-Americans.
posted by blnkfrnk at 10:56 AM on January 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm a food history nerd, and suet used to be common in this country two or three hundred years ago. Not so much anymore. I've spent at least the past five years trying to track some down, with no success. In fact, I've even tried making my own by rendering raw kidney fat, but I can't even find that anywhere.

The closest we came recently was when I was visiting family over the winter. My mom is as much of a nerd about this sort of thing as I am (she's the one who got me cooking medieval recipes when I was in elementary school), and she was talking to all of her farmer's market contacts about getting suet, without any luck. Finally, one of them said "oh, we do have suet, and I'll bring some next week!" We were both excited, but when she brought it home, I looked closely and it was tallow, not suet. Tallow is great, and I'd love to find some here in California, but it's not suet. The search continues.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 10:58 AM on January 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

I spent many a year on a farm in the south, Tennessee specifically. We raised the standard farm animals and so I have always known what suet was, I think my mom used it for stews occasionally, maybe sausage but not much else I can think of. Now lard, we used a ton of that. I am now in a suburb in Georgia, far removed from a farm and lard is at every supermarket in a 10 mile radius around me but my area is pretty diverse. I have never seen suet for sale outside of bird food blocks
posted by ReiFlinx at 10:59 AM on January 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

When I was a college student in the early 2000s I did a stint abroad in London, and at one point volunteered to bring homemade pies for a Thanksgiving meal my US-based cohort had decided to hold. This led to a confusing, Who's-On-First-esque exchange between myself and some poor stocker at Sainsbury's as I searched for "shortening," and we ended up exchanging descriptions ("... it's like butter, but, uh, less firm? and kinda whitish instead of yellow? but sometimes it comes in a tub?") and attempts at context ("... or maybe it's more like lard, do you guys use lard here?") and parroting each other's words back and forth until the guy finally went "Oh, you want suet" and led me to a package of the stuff.

"Oh," thought I. "This is just one of those things where Americans and Brits have different words for the same thing. But it's the same! We're really all one people, united in baking!"

Then I opened the box and instead of a brick of creamy, soft, yellowish fat, a punch of ... fish-food-like pellets came raining out. Which I ... kneaded? To break down the consistency and form a ... greasy ball? And then kind of mashed in the flour? I think I tried cutting in the dry ingredients with a knife as usual but ... yeah, I just remember staring at the little balls of tallow studded throughout the dough, mournfully admitting the dough was never going to achieve a homogenous crustlike state.

I don't even remember what it tasted like (TBH it's possible I gave up and made a butter-only crust, actually) but ... yeah. That was my cross-cultural suet experience.

TL;DR: Nope. We don't use suet for baking in the U.S.
posted by alleycat01 at 11:03 AM on January 25, 2018 [16 favorites]

I knew suet was beef fat, but not that specific form of fat. I have on occasion gone out of my way to buy leaf lard (the equivalent of suet from pigs) because it makes an outstanding pie crust, but it is also not easy to come by. Neither of these are common baking ingredients in the US.
posted by O9scar at 11:19 AM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I definitely use suet to make Cornish pasties, which I make...not often. But I won't substitute any other ingredient. I suppose I could use lard but it would probably be pretty weird in a pasty, which has a beef filling.
posted by holborne at 11:27 AM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

(@Alleycat01 seeing pea sized lumps of butter is actually really good in crusts as that’s what makes it flaky!)
posted by raccoon409 at 11:27 AM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

@tillsbury Dumplings are for sure a thing in the USA, and my mother makes a mean beef stew without suet.

Although now I want to get suet and compare.

I'm a mildly competent cook and baker and can nth that suet is not really a thing in the USA.
posted by kellygrape at 11:31 AM on January 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

(Although if you say "dumplings", many Americans may immediately think of thin wrappers filled with deliciousness - a la - but I know you meant dumplings more like this)

Oh, the differences in food and what we call food.
posted by kellygrape at 11:35 AM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Mom made suet pudding a few times when we were kids, but I remember that she had to really hunt for suet that wasn't part of a bird feeder product. I think she may have eventually gotten it from a farmer acquaintance.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:46 AM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

And yes, as a prolific pie baker I can attest that lard crusts are better than vegetable shortening crusts. But as a vegetarian, it's worth the sacrifice in quality to me.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:52 AM on January 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

While not non-existent, I would say that most Americans are familiar with Asian-style dumplings, not the "chunks of dough" style (I think of that as mostly for people with Mitteleuropaischer roots). I don't think suet would be terribly helpful in making the wrappers.
posted by praemunire at 12:00 PM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's unusual in Canada as well, if that helps.

It isn't all that common in the "jumbomart" type stores in Canada but you can buy it. If you ask the butcher they usually can dig some up for you. My small local store with a large meat department (catering to many Eastern European communities) definitely sells it but generally they only display it seasonally. I've found it frozen as well.
posted by Ashwagandha at 12:03 PM on January 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

While not non-existent, I would say that most Americans are familiar with Asian-style dumplings, not the "chunks of dough" style (I think of that as mostly for people with Mitteleuropaischer roots). I don't think suet would be terribly helpful in making the wrappers.

I think of "chicken and dumplings" as a fairly classic American dish, but I was talking about dumplings with my husband the other day (prompted by the GBBO episode where they make those Viennese steamed sweet rolls) and he had never heard of such a thing. We're both from New England but I've also lived in the Southeast - maybe that's where I became aware of them? Anyway, I would assume that such dumplings for chicken stew would be made with lard in the most-traditional households, vegetable shortening in the next-most-traditional, or butter in my house.
posted by mskyle at 12:17 PM on January 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

My family has always made chicken and dumplings and we use Crisco for the fat.
posted by KleenexMakesaVeryGoodHat at 12:18 PM on January 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

It's unusual in Canada as well, if that helps

I bought mine at Superstore at Christmastime! Anyhow, as a lot of us have British ancestors, the older generation, I think, or more traditional enclaves still use it at Christmas. I was in Cape Breton this Christmas and when I went to buy mincemeat for the requested pie, you could choose between mincemeat with suet, and vegetarian mincemeat (without). I'm not positive but I think it was actually President's Choice brand. Anyhow, the one with suet was sold out.
posted by kitcat at 12:32 PM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

In the words of the butcher my mom used to buy hers from once a year, “Bird suet is not pudding suet.” An independent butcher or meat department of a ritzy grocery store should be able to help you.
posted by corey flood at 12:41 PM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Americans typically no longer even eat lard, which is processed from pork or beef fat. I learned to make dumplings from my ex- and still do them occasionally. If I needed suet, I'd ask the butcher at a large grocery store.
posted by theora55 at 1:02 PM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also, there was a scandal when it transpired that McDonald's was using beef fat/ flavoring in french fries, because they didn't disclose it and some people have religious objections.
posted by theora55 at 1:04 PM on January 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

On the dumpling question I'd only think of the floury balls in chicken and dumplings if you explicitly mentioned them in the context of that dish -- otherwise when just plain "dumplings" are mentioned I think of something that has a filling inside a thin wrapper.

I also think of dumplings in the "chicken and dumplings" context as a Southern thing, though I have no idea if that's accurate.
posted by andrewesque at 1:11 PM on January 25, 2018

No and in fact I bought a 5 lb block of suet from my fancy meat CSA with ambitious plans for Christmas pudding and now it's stuck in my freezer. I've been meaning to post an Ask about it.
posted by peacheater at 1:17 PM on January 25, 2018

Now I know what I'm giving for quonsmas.
posted by biffa at 1:39 PM on January 25, 2018 [9 favorites]

Funny story, we had extra one year and put it out at the bird feeder, but it was unseasonably warm (it’s already like 40-60F that time of year in Pasadena) and the birds wouldn’t touch it. So we wound up with a rotting lump of suet on the bird feeder until we got a heavy rain. I think those birds were spoiled and citified from eating so many dropped french fries and couldn’t recognize a good thing, but maybe they were wanting bird suet and not kitchen suet. Weird though that the squirrels didn’t go after it.
posted by blnkfrnk at 1:53 PM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, many Canadians look for suet at Christmas time, and it's also easy to find in Chinese markets (e.g. chains like T&T). The folks who do traditional UK recipes need it for puddings and pies and the like. It used to be common as well as a frying fat (fries in beef fat are amazing), but most just use vegetable oil now. Suet is easy to get and available, but it's an ask-the-butcher-for-it item.

We look for it fairly often for making black pudding and the like, but we're kinda weirdos.
posted by bonehead at 1:54 PM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Um, you can MAKE black pudding??? Oh my. A whole new world has opened up before me!
posted by kitcat at 2:12 PM on January 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

What the heck, it seems topical. Here's LN's most recent version of her recipe:
2 pints (tubs) pork blood
3 lg onions, finely chopped (brunoise)
3/4c milk (5% coffee milk)
2 1/2 t peppercorns, ground
2 t salt
1 allspice berry
16 oz pork belly
4 oz pinhead oats, toasted

+2 oz whisky

Finely dice pork fat. Separately, finely dice pork meat from belly. In a hot cast iron pan, melt pork fat. Fry onions on low heat until translucent - do not brown. Add diced pork + spices + oats. Continue to fry and stir until well mixed. Pour in whisky and toss. Pack into a 9x12 pan lined w parchment paper. Mix blood + milk + pour over solids in pan, stirring to mix well.

Bake @ 350F for 1 hr or until a skewer comes out clean.

Cool to fridge temp. Cut into 3/4 x 3 in pieces, freeze to solid. Vac pack in portions when frozen.

Fry in butter to serve.
Getting the texture right on the onions is pretty important. You want them finely chopped, but not blended into mush. That took us a while to get right. Poaching the onions in the fat before cooking is also a pretty important step. You're trying to soften, not brown.

This obviously is a pork/lard-based recipe, but we've done it with beef blood/suet as well with very good results. LN really likes the pork belly here, but obviously you don't need to do the meat/fat separation step with pure suet. Never hurts to check though.

Note that the blood we use in this recipe is pre-salted (we buy it in frozen tubs from T&T Markets). When we've used raw blood straight from a slaughterhouse we had to add a fair bit of salt to get the balance right.

The intention here is to duplicate what LN's Newfoundland grandmother used to cook for her dad when he was a boy. We're pretty close now (I think we're on version 8 or 9 of the recipe). Our product is within hailing distance of a Stornoway black pud, especially when made with beef. The pork version is a bit milder. I don't know that the whiskey is very important, but it adds a nice bit of bite.

We don't put it in casings, as mentioned above, but we cut them up into portions like bars, then freeze them individually. I then vac pack 'em in pairs. They keep for a very long time that way.
posted by bonehead at 2:32 PM on January 25, 2018 [5 favorites]

I found a source for beef tallow, which is also rendered fat but not usually used in cooking as an ingredient. McD's was cooking their fries in tallow.

A US recipe writer who wanted beef fat in her pie crust would say to get beef fat from the butcher and render the fat as a first step.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:58 PM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Rhode Island. I can get suet in the big grocery chain here. I decided I wanted to make a Victorian Christmas dinner and made a plum pudding a month in advance. The goose was harder to find than the suet.

The plum pudding did not turn out well. But it scratched an itch and now I own a pudding basin.
posted by Ruki at 7:09 PM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I know people who use it to add fat to deer and elk sausage (since wild game is so lean), but otherwise I've always known it primarily as bird food.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:52 PM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have been reeeally jonesing for my Grandma's blueberry dumplings. I'm gonna have to bite the bulletberry and try to figure out what made them so special. I hope it's not suet.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:56 PM on January 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I get suet from the butcher at Whole Foods. But it usually takes getting someone over 50 before they know what I’m talking about.
posted by culfinglin at 9:04 PM on January 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

My grandma would make suet pudding with hard sauce as a special thing at Christmas. We lived in Iowa. It seemed weird and old fashioned to me, and I don’t know anyone else who had the same tradition. I don’t know where she got the recipe, but it was one of her favorites, and a rare indulgence for her.
posted by BrashTech at 4:38 AM on January 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

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