T is for Tallow



a to z - tallow

Tallow. The name is arhh-matey-arrhh and salty as can be. But what is it? Tallow is waxy fat from mutton (though you can make it from venison and other animal fats) used as lubricant on board ship. If there’s any sort of leather on board (oar leathers, protective edges on sail attachment points, the places where wooden spars rest against the mast, etc), tallow is the greatest thing for lubricant. It’s great for protection of things steel like handsaws. I also lubricate my oarlocks with it and anything else that just needs a little-dab-will-do-yah. The stuff never seems to go rancid, either, once the impurities have been removed. I’ve had one can of tallow since the mid-1980s and it has never gone bad. Historically it’s been used for lubrication of firearms and for frying food, sorta like Crisco. Presently it’s used commercially in a lot of products from leather conditioners to moisturizers to soap.

And better yet, it’s easy to make.

First you obtain the fat. A local butcher is great, but I have saved fat from when I get leg of lamb, trimming it before cooking and freezing it until I have enough to make it worth the process. Once you have a good sized chunk of it saved, you render it in a frying pan, slowly. Think of cooking bacon without any smoke at all, it’s that slow and low temperature. When it’s all liquid grease, pour it into an old coffee can or other metal can that is disposable. Let it cool. Then pour water into the can and put that into a pot of simmering water. You can put the can directly on the heat if you can control the heat on a very low setting. The idea is that you simmer the water in the can at a very low heat for a long time. The rendered fat will melt, become liquid. As it simmers right along with the water, all the impurities will drop down to the bottom of the can, leaving pure tallow at the top. After you’ve done this for a while (I let mine go for a couple of hours at least) you turn off the heat and let it cool. When it’s cool the solidified fat on top of the water is tallow. Dip it out, put it in a can and you’re golden.

The stuff is amazing. When you’ve been applying it to your oar leathers, etc, it soaks into your hands and turns them baby soft. Great stuff. I’ve thought of putting lanolin in it for hand cream, but that’s another project I’ll probably never get to.

In days of old, of course, candles were made of tallow. You can do that too. The easiest way to do it is to make a jar candle because pure tallow can be used for that. If you want to make a dip candle or pour one in a form it’s a good idea to add something like beeswax, or alum or even resin (not certain what kind) to make it hard enough to stand up to warmer temperatures. There are all sorts of recipes for that online, but I’ve personally never done it so you’re on your own.





3 thoughts on “T is for Tallow

  1. The Pilgrims made bayberry candles. The bayberry bush has berries that give off a waxy residue when boiled. The bayberry wax rises to the surface of the water; they added beeswax to make candles. The bayberry candles burned longer and cleaner than the tallow version. I made some once – you tie several cords to a branch, dip the cords into the wax, walk around (in this case a garden) until the wax cools, then dip again, walk again, until you build up a candle.

    • And get exercise at the same time, I’d call that a win-win. Of course I don’t suppose the Pilgrims had much problem with getting enough exercise, as they were too busy fighting off Indians and jumping to conclusions. I wonder if the Pilgrims had a ‘candle making day’ the same way the early settlers had ‘barn raisings’ where everyone would gather around, beat their gums and did the task of the day together? Inquiring minds want to know …

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