Suet is beef fat, and can be purchased at the grocery store over in the (anyone?) beef section.
It's incredibly cheap, too.
So, what do you do with the suet?
My parents have always just put the suet out in some sort of suet feeder - some kind of metal cage - and let the birds have at it. The only thing to keep in mind is that if you're going to do that, the weather outside should be very very cold, otherwise the suet - or raw fat - could become rancid. Ick.
So why give the birds suet if it might become stinky and gross?
Because fat = calories = warmth for the tiny, feathered creatures out there, and in the winter, when food is scarce and temperatures are low, every little bit helps.
Of course, the squirrels like the suet, too. They pretty much like anything. So if you don't want the squirrels to have access to your suet cakes, you'll need to either place them in some sort of metal (i.e. something that can't be chewed through) container or hang them from a verrrrrry long piece of chain or wire, away from trees or bushes - someplace the squirrels can't climb or jump to.
As you can see in the picture above, I didn't think about that when I made this batch, so next time around, I'll use something different, perhaps.
Another thing to keep in mind (I'm sorry - I'm incredibly disorganized this morning. Haven't posted in a while; I'm out of practice. That's what I'm going with, anyway.) when you're planning your suet-hanging method, is that scene in "A Christmas Story" - you know the one - where Ralphie's friend Flick is triple-dog-dared to stick his tongue against the flagpole in the school yard. Not good. The same thing can happen to little birds if you're using bare metal; their little tiny eyes or open beaks could become stuck to the metal and, unlike Flick, who was rescued by the fire dept and the police, the little stuck bird will die.
A good plan, therefore, is to buy pre-made suet cages that have been dipped in paint, or you can dip your wire creations in paint or parafin. I might give parafin a try if I decide to try making my own hangers.
Now, to get back to my original topic...I wanted to make suet cakes for a few reasons. First, because I like to make my own things. Suet cakes are readily available in grocery stores, some pet stores, and stores that cater to feeding wild birds, but you know me by now - I make my own bread most of the time, so why not make my own suet cakes? The other reason was so I could give them as gifts to family members at Christmas. My parents feed TONS of birds - their home is located on the edge of protected, wooded land, and as a result they get lots of feathered visitors. And my sister, in addition to her chickens, has always fed the birds at her house as well. I also gave some to Joe and Emily - they've seen some birds at their house and had been talking about feeding them.
If you want to make suet cakes, there are plenty of recipes online. The important thing, if you want to prevent the suet cakes from getting rancid (and if you don't want to have to store yours in the freezer or fridge before you hang them) is to render the suet before you start making your cakes.
What is rendering? Rendering basically purifies the suet (fat) by removing the proteins. To do this at home, all you have to do is put your suet in a big pot, melt it down, strain it, let it harden, then repeat the process. And - tada. Rendered suet. I won't lie to you - it smells kind of gross. But if you plan your day, you can do the first melting in the morning, bake a batch of brownies to get rid of the cooked beef fat smell, do the second melting after lunch, and simmer orange peel, cinnamon and vanilla in a pan of water on the stove after that. Just a thought.
Oh, and before I get going with the pictures, I got my initial recipe and instructions here. The suet page I've linked to is part of a website called The Nutty Birdwatcher, a site that focuses on birds in the Eastern US.
Okay, let's render us some beef fat, shall we?
First, you need to get some beef suet. Like I said, you should have no trouble getting packages of it at the grocery store or, if you want to ask your butcher for suet, you should have no problem there, either.
I started out with about 2 1/2 pounds total. I think that cost me around two dollars or so.
Cut the suet into small pieces. This will help melt it evenly and quickly.
Okay, so here's my bowl of chopped suet:
Put all this in a large pot on your stove and set your flame at medium low. You're not cooking it; you're just melting it. You'll see the fat start to soften almost immediately.
Stir the mixture around now and then until all the fat is liquified.
Pour this through fine cheesecloth, or a fine mesh strainer, into a bowl and discard the bits that don't make it through the straining process. Allow the suet in the bowl to cool and harden.
I don't know why I didn't take pictures of that part of it. You'll just have to imagine the excitment.
Anyway, once the suet has hardened, get the pot out, dump your suet into it, and repeat the melting and straining process.
I used the "Birder's Delight" recipe on the page I linked to above. It sounded good, from a hungry bird point of view. I think I made one small change, though, based on what I had on hand that day.
Anyway, just as you would if you were making a batch of cupcakes or brownies, you should get everything prepped and ready before you begin.
Here are my ingredients:
The hardened suet is in the bowl. Then there are the oats, cornmeal, bird seed mixture, and chunky peanutbutter. I didn't add the cup of hulled seeds or nuts called for in the recipe - I think I just upped the quantity of birdseed.
Anyway, the recipe calls for a pound of suet. I had more than that in my bowl, and it was cold and very solid, so I had to hack some of it out of the bowl so I could weigh it.
Because I was making these for Christmas gifts, I decided to use these little snowflake-patterned silicone muffin molds. You'll notice they're...well, they're shorter than muffin molds or muffin tins.
That's because I'd used them originally to make little papery gift tags to sell in my Etsy store. These weren't as popular as my original snowflake shapes, though, so I figured I'd just use them for the suet. I also had a little plastic square mold that I'd saved from a suet cake I bought at the grocery store earlier.
Once I'd ladled the suet mixture into all my molds, I realized I'd forgotten about twine or string to hang them with. Oops. So I cut up a bunch of twine into foot-long pieces and tied them, like so:
I also ended up with more of the suet mixture than I had molds for, so I lined one of my kids' plastic Holiday stemware glasses with plastic wrap and poured the rest of the mixture into it.
Then I tied the ends of the plastic wrap together so the suet would (hopefully) form a ball.
Anyway, here they are:
That was my first batch.
I still had some more suet, so the next day I made another batch, with some adjustments to the recipe based on the amount of suet I had.
Here's my recipe:
14 oz rendered beef suet
3/4 cup chunky peanutbutter
1/2 cup dried cranberries, chopped
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup oatmeal
1 cup mixed seed
And roughly 1 cup of leftover ground candied fruit and nuts from the Lebkuchen I made. Actually, I'd made too much last year, so I put the extra in the freezer and used most of it this year. But I still had some left. You could just chop up dried fruit and nuts and add them in, or just use raisins, shelled peanuts, whatever. There's a lot of room for creativity here.
I prepped my snowflake molds and this time I used regular muffin tins as well, lined with the paper muffin liners. Wasn't sure how many I'd need, but I guessed 6. I ended up using 10, I think.
After I'd mixed everything together, I had to do something - I don't know what - feed the cats, break up a fight between the kids, feed someone, who knows. And in that short period of time, the suet pretty much solidified. So I warmed it back up and melted everything again. I love this stuff. So forgiving!
I stuck these in the fridge, too, and a day or so later I bagged the snowflake suet cakes up like so...
And that was that. Merry Christmas suet treats.
Now, like I mentioned earlier, it's probably better to use chain or other wire as hangers for these, or make them without the hanging device and put them in the little suet cage style feeders. The way they are now? Squirrel fodder, unless you can hang them very high, away from trees or bushes or garages or anything else that gives a squirrel a way to get at them. The squirrels have been chewing through the twine and scurrying away with their little suet treats.
OH! Almost forgot!
Back on the first day when I was melting suet, here's what the kids made:
Not sure if the birds had a chance at them, but we know the squirrels were appreciative.