PHOTO: Susan Brackney
Susan Brackney
January 8, 2020

Winter would be extra dreary if it weren’t for the flashes of color at my many backyard bird feeders. I’ve managed to attract downy woodpeckers, nuthatches, northern flickers and many others. At first, I spent a small fortune on commercially available suet cakes. Ranging from $1.50 to as much as $6 a piece, these typically contain a mix of nuts, seeds and fruits suspended in bricks of processed animal fats. In winter, they provide insect-eating birds with much-needed fat and protein.

It didn’t take long for the birds to find—and devour!—my store-bought suet. I went through several boxes of the individually wrapped goodies month after month. Aside from the expense, I wasn’t crazy about all of the packaging that came with them either. That’s when I looked into recipes for homemade suet cakes. Turns out, it’s surprisingly easy. Best of all, by including specific ingredients, it’s possible to attract specific types of birds.

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Finding Fat

The first of a two-part series, we’ll start with finding and rendering fat. Prized by cooks making old-fashioned puddings and breads, “suet” actually refers to a specialized fat which surrounds the kidneys of certain types of livestock. Fortunately, you need not be quite so picky when seeking fat sources to include as the base for your own “suet” cakes.

If you regularly make venison or beef dishes, for example, you already have access to good sources of fat for feeding wild birds. Rather than discard this fat, cut it into small cubes and freeze these until you have a few pounds stored up. Alternatively, you can ask your local butcher to save beef fat for you. While some butchers will give this away, others may charge a nominal fee. If possible, ask them to run it through their meat grinder. For your first batch, start with three to five pounds of beef fat. It likely will include bits of meat and other detritus which will need to be separated from the fat.

Rendering 101

Here’s a quick primer on rendering fat for homemade suet cakes (or any purpose, really).

  • Although it’s possible to use a double boiler or microwave oven, I prefer to use a slow cooker set on “low” to render—or separate out—my beef fat. If you plan to go this route, you’ll also need a knife and cutting board, large spoon, some cheesecloth or a very fine strainer, and a freezer-safe container.
  • To reduce overall cook time, pull the fat from the freezer in advance and allow it to thaw. Next, cut it into small chunks and drop these into the slow cooker set on low heat. Initially, this fat-and-meat mixture will take up considerable space in the pot. As the mixture warms, the fat will melt into a clear liquid. Depending on the number and size of beef fat pieces being rendered, the process can take about an hour or up to two or three hours in all. Any meat present in the pot will brown. Stir periodically until all of the meat has separated out from the fat and has browned.
  • Next, scoop out the browned meat with the strainer, allowing the liquid fat to drain through into the freezer-safe container. Pour the liquified fat left in the slow cooker through the cheesecloth and into the freezer-safe container. (Sometimes I’ll also set aside these browned bits of meat to fold into homemade dog treats.)
  • If you plan to make suet cakes in the near future, store the liquified fat in the refrigerator. Otherwise, keep it in the freezer. As it cools, it will transform from a clear liquid to a solid, white block.

Next Steps

You can combine this hardened, rendered beef fat with crunchy peanut butter, cornmeal, dried fruits, and even dried mealworms and crickets to create your own custom suet cakes. As for the shapes you’d like your homemade suet cakes to take, if you want simple rectangles that’ll fit in standard wire suet feeders, a 9×12 cake pan will suffice. (You’ll pour the suet mixture in, let it cool, and then cut into sections.) Of course, if you’ve saved the plastic pans in which commercially available suet cakes are sometimes packaged, these make terrific molds, too.

Want something fancier? Muffin tins or gelatin molds also work well. To hang these kinds of cakes, you’ll punch a hole through them while they’re still somewhat soft and then add string loops. Similarly, you can run string around the top of an open pinecone and, while the suet cake mixture is still warm, drizzle it inside and out for a pretty, natural and tasty bird treat.

Next week, I’ll include a few different recipes and instructions to finish the job.

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