Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Soap Making 101: Rendering Fat

I've been making my own soap (off and on) for about 20 years and have been wanting to blog a brief instructional on soap making for a while...the whole process...starting with rendering fat.  So that is where I will begin today...

I learned fat rendering from the book "Soap:  Making It, Enjoying It", by Ann Bramson.  This is an excellent book, which I used exclusively back when I was learning this skill.  I highly recommend it.

So...first things first... 
You will need Fat, Salt, Water, Cheesecloth, Bowls and Room in your refrigerator!
I usually go to my local grocer or butcher and see if he has any fat he is willing to sell.  For a number of years, the merchant would happily give me the scraps for free (especially if I told him about my soap making plans!).  Recently, I went to the store and was told that the manager no longer wanted to give it away...that they ought to get something for the product.  So...I paid 25¢ for about 20 pounds of fat. I think someone probably got in trouble for that one!
This particular batch looked like it was from the fatty edges that were cut off of steaks and such.  Anything will work, as long as it's fat.  Some meat on the fat is fine as long as it's not too much.  It will separate during the process.  (Sorry...I forgot to take photos of the packages of fat!)
April 2014 update:
Here are photos of the last batch of fat I got from the butcher.  This batch was pork, which made a much softer lard.  Lovely for cooking and it did make a very nice soap.  Given a choice, though, I prefer working with beef fat.  The tallow was much firmer and easier to work with than the pork lard.

Now you want to cut it up into chunks, the smaller the better.  
It will render faster if it is cut smaller.  Start tossing the chunks into a large stock pot.  Once it is about 3/4 full, add about a quart of water and a couple (2) tablespoons of salt.  Turn the heat/flame on high and bring to a boil.  Lower heat to a slow boil, but watch as you don't want to burn the fat.  Remember to stir occasionally throughout the process.  Break up the chunks as you go along.  It will begin to look like this...

Take a Potato Masher and periodically smash up some of the fat chunks.

Remember, the smaller the chunks are, the faster it will render.

After a few hours (Ms. Bramson mentions 4 hours) you will have rendered a good amount of fat.  You can continue with the process, it just depends on how diligent you want to be.  I usually go longer...the fat isn't going evaporate (the water will...and that's a good thing)!
Here is what your pot should look like...
The chunks will be sitting on the bottom more and more and the fat will be rising to the top!  The chunks will now look more like pork rinds!  Brown and spent.

Now you're ready to strain your pot!  
Line a colander with cheesecloth.  I usually use 3-4 layers.  Grab a nice big ladle and some large bowls.

Place the cheesecloth-lined colander into one of your large bowls.
Start ladling your fat and (at this point) cracklings into the colander.
When your bowl is getting full, stop!  You don't want to overfill it as it will be hard to move into the refrigerator later!  
Let it cool a little, then gather up the edges of the cheesecloth and give it a good twist to get out every bit of fat that there is to be had.  You will be amazed at what is left of the fat solids in the end!!

This is what you'll have when you are done straining...

Let your fat cool and then cover your bowl with plastic wrap (I usually don't bother with this...if you have strong smelling stuff in your fridge...then maybe so...) and place in your refrigerator overnight.  

Tomorrow you will take out your bowl...

...and have...
 ...solid, white, rendered fat!  

To remove the fat from the bowl, just dip the bowl, for a few seconds, into a sink of warm water.  Flip the bowl onto your wax paper covered working surface and it should release with no problem.  If it doesn't, just repeat the process.

All that's left now is scraping the brown sediment off of the block of fat.  It isn't a thick layer, but does need to be removed for a pure product.
(You can see here how thin the sediment veneer is.)
Scrape, scrape, scrape!
 At this point, I take a paper towel and wipe off the scraped block.  It not only smooths the product, but helps remove any small bits I may have missed while scraping.

Wrap and freeze your rendered fat (tallow now!) for future use.
I wrap in plastic wrap and then in another layer of aluminum foil.  It's off to the freezer now!!

That wasn't so bad...was it?!  Yes, it is time consuming, but so worth the effort.  If you aren't interested in soap making, this could just be another handy skill for tough times.  

I also added the amount of fat that was rendered in the photo above.  Because my soap recipe requires 6 pounds of tallow, I do my best to get as close to that amount when filling my bowls earlier in the process.

When I get a little more time, I'll put up a post with instructions on how to make soap with your tallow!
Also, not difficult...just time consuming.
Feb. 2013 Update :  Ready for the next step?  Click here---> Soapmaking 201 to learn how to make bar soap with your tallow!

April 2013 Update:  I was able to carve off about 2 pounds of pork meat from the latest batch of pork fat (photo in update above).  There was nothing wrong with it, so I placed it into a 7x11" pan and baked it until done.  OMGosh, was it good.  The excess fat that baked out of the meat was poured into my fat pot.  Nothing went to waste.  Now my husband wants to buy fat, just for the meat salvage!  This last batch of pork fat cost me $2.71 for 25 pounds.  The dinner was just an unexpected bonus!

PS...Visit the Barn Hop at http://homesteadrevival.blogspot.com/2012/09/barn-hop-78.html for more great homesteading and home keeping ideas! 
You will find a list every week of wonderful inspirations!  I'm #192 this week!  Yes...there are that many...and more!! 


  1. Could you please tell me what the function of the salt is?

    1. I wish I could give you a definitive a answer. I went to the search engines with your question and no one had an explanation, but it is nearly always used. Aside from being a flavor enhancer, salt is traditionally used as a preservative and will help draw water, impurities, etc. from whatever it is added to. My best guess is that it aids in the rendering process as a "draw". Wish I could give you a more knowledgeable answer.