By David Fisher
On the label of many commercially available soap products you'll see sodium tallowate listed as an ingredient. Sodium tallowate is the by-product of mixing lye with tallow or beef fat. Technically, tallow is fat (beef or other) that has been rendered. The primary ingredient used in most soaps is beef fat.
Whether you agree with the use of animal products, there are a few simple reasons why beef fat (or tallow) is used so widely in soap making:
- It's cheap,
- It's readily available,
- It makes really good soap.
The lather is rich and creamy, and hard to duplicate in vegetable oil soap. Vegetable oils are easier to store and there are a lot of people who just don't like the idea of beef fat in their soaps.
So...how do we render beef (or other animal) fat into tallow? It's pretty easy.
1 - Getting started
To render the tallow you'll need:
- 3-5 pounds of fat - chopped or ground into as small of pieces as possible.
- A large pot - you will use to make soap
- Water and some salt
- A sieve or colander
- A large bowl to cool it in
- Some large spoons, and a potato masher if you have one
Be sure to see the Special Note about the fat you get.
2 - Adding water and salt
Adding Water to the Pot
Rendering is pretty much just melting it to separate out the fat from the meat, gristle and other impurities. It is similar to filtering out all the olive skins, bits of pits, olive flesh and excess water from your freshly pressed olive oil.
To render the fat into tallow, first, put the fat into a big stew pot and add enough water to just cover the tallow. Add about 1 tbs. of salt for every pound of fat.
The smaller the chunks, the quicker and more efficiently it will render. Ask your butcher to run the fat through the grinder or run it through the food processor. It really makes a big difference! Don't forget to give the butcher a bar of soap when it's done!
3 - Heating the mixture
Beginning to Boil
Heat the mixture to boiling, then reduce the heat to a low, rumbling simmer. The chunks of fat will start to release the liquid fat, and any meat that was left in the fat will start to cook.
Be sure to do this in a well ventilated place or turn on the range fan - it will get very smelly!
4 – Letting it simmer
The size of your fat chunks will determine how long you will have to boil the mixture. For pre-ground fat, you will only have to simmer it for about 20-30 minutes. If the chunks were larger, it will take longer. Just keep it simmering over a low heat and stir often. You can also take your potato masher and mash the fat a bit. This will help squeeze the oil out of the meat/chunks.
5 - Simmering until it becomes melted tallow, meat and gristle
Meat and Gristle
When all that is left solid in the pot is browned meat and gristle, you've gotten about all of the fat you are going to get. Yes, there may be some reluctant chunks of fat and meat still floating in the pot, but sometimes it's just not worth the extra work to get the fat separated out. If you're up for the challenge, mash the remaining meat chunks with the potato masher to get out every last drop of oil you can. That should get nearly all of the usable fat separated out.
6 - Straining the liquid
Strain the Liquid
Now, carefully take the pot off of the stove and pour the hot liquid through a sieve or colander into a large bowl in the sink. (And just like you wouldn't pour hot wax down the drain, be careful that none of the liquid fat goes down the drain!) The colander is to strain out all of the pieces of meat and gristle.
Lift the colander out of the big bowl. You'll notice that the water is sinking to the bottom and the melted tallow is rising to the top of the bowl.
Note: You can mix the meat and gristle with some peanut butter or bran to make a treat for the birds.
7 – Cooling the liquid
Disc of Fat
Let the liquid cool to room temperature. Then carefully put the bowl in a cool place and let it cool overnight. The tallow will cool into a large white disc on the top of the bowl.
8 - Separating the tallow
Remove the Tallow
Using a knife or a fork, pry up the disc of tallow and put the pieces into a large bowl.
Now comes a tricky part. What's left will be a gelatinous, gray goo. You don't want to pour the left over liquid into the sink – there may still be some chunks/particles of fat left that can clog your sink pipes. I recommend throwing it out into the backyard, or at least into the toilet.
9 – Cleaning the tallow
Clean the tallow
On the bottom side of the tallow, there will likely be some loose pellet-like particles of fat. Wipe off as much of this as possible with a paper towel, and wash the rest off under some cool running water. Again, you don't want too much of this going down your sink drain.
10 - Ready to use for soap
Ready to Use Tallow
Cut the tallow into small pieces and put it into a plastic freezer bag. Label the bag as to when you made the tallow. It will keep a year or so in the freezer. As you need it for your recipes, just break off a few chunks and throw them into your soap pot!
Special Note about the fat you get:
Any animal fat (cow, deer, sheep, buffalo) can be rendered into tallow, but the quality of the fat you use will determine the quality of the tallow. Many people swear by only using "kidney suet", the fat that surrounds the cow's kidneys. It's much harder and whiter and makes really wonderful tallow. It's also really hard to find anywhere but a specialty butcher shop - and you're likely to pay a pretty penny for it - whereas normal, everyday beef fat from the grocery store butcher is likely to be free. Is there a difference? Probably - to the purists at least - but I haven't noticed a big difference in the soaps I've made.
As you'll see from looking at commercial soap labels now that tallow is a common oil that people use to create soap recipes. Whether you choose to use animal oils or not in your soap recipes, understanding the qualities of soap making oils, and at least knowing how to render your own tallow is a soap making experience that I think all soap makers should have at least once.