When winter settles in, white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees search for hibernating insects, tree seeds, berries and nuts to fill out their diet. You can help by hanging a suet feeder. You’ll find pre-made suet cakes at the store or try making your own with our recipes.
Making suet is simple, and you may find that you enjoy whipping up a gourmet meal for your feathered friends. Here’s how to do it.
|Materials and Tools|
2 28-oz. cans with labels removed
1 pkg. cheesecloth
Recipe ingredients (including 1lb. of suet)
Knife and cutting board
double boiler (if on stove)
long extension cord
tongue and groove pliers
Step one —Buy the suet. Suet is the fat from the loin and kidney areas of cattle and sheep. You’ll find it in your local grocery store or meat shop. Ask your butcher to grind it for you or chop your suet into small pieces so it will melt quickly and not leave large globs of fat for you to strain. One pound of suet makes a cake about 4 inches square and 2 inches thick and should fit in a commercial cage feeder.
Step two — Cut up the ingredients. Just like stir-fry, it’s best to have everything chopped and measured ahead of time. In the case of suet, it’s because the fat starts to harden as soon as you remove it from the heat and you don’t want your suet to harden while you’re chopping up the peanuts.
Step three — Melt the suet. To keep the house from having that greasy old diner smell, I move everything to the tool shed, I use an electric skillet and a long extension cord.
Fill the skillet about 3/4 full with water and turn the temperature up to 350 degrees. As it boils, the water will melt the suet at a lower temperature, and this will keep the suet from smoking or scorching. Put your ground or diced suet in the can and place the can in the water — it doesn’t have to be boiling, yet. I use a can so I don’t have to clean the grease out of my electric skillet, and its easier to pour the melted suet out of a can.
You may not be able to get all the suet in the can at once. Just add more as it melts down. Stir the suet occasionally with a wooden spoon, I use a pair of tongue and groove pliers to hold the side of the can so it won’t tip.
If you don’t mind the smell and prefer cooking inside on the stove, you can put your suet in a double boiler or a saucepan.
Let the suet melt and stir it occasionally to avoid scorching. Keep an eye on your suet as it melts, just as you would any hot grease.
Step four — Prepare to strain the suet. While you’re waiting for the suet to melt — it takes about 20 minutes — fold your cheesecloth in half and cut a square of it big enough to cover the mouth of the second tin can. Place it over the mouth of the unused can and push the fabric down a little in the center to create a basin so the grease doesn’t roll over the edge. Secure it with a rubberband.
When most of the suet has melted to a clear liquid, it’s ready to strain. There will be a few gray pieces of fat floating, but that’s normal. Remove the can from the skillet with the pliers and pour the melted suet hrough the cheesecloth into the second can. Discard the cheesecloth and its contents and let the remaining liquid fat cool until it hardens.
Step five — Do it all over again. By repeating steps two and three, the suet cake will be harder and won’t melt outdoors when temperatures rise.Place your can of hardened suet back in the skillet to melt. Then strain it again. It may seem like a lot of work, but you’ll be glad you did it. When the suet has melted this time, you’ll need to move to the next step quickly.
Step six — Stir in the ingredients with a wooden spoon. Most suet recipes call for chopped or shelled nuts or crumbled breadcrumbs. Smaller pieces of food are easier for the birds to eat and make for less waste. When you’re adding the ingredients, pay attention to the consistency of your mix and adjust it as needed. I’ve made batches that were runny — like soup — and others that were lumpy — more like cookie dough. After they’re frozen, they’re both fine, but the runnier type seems to hold together better in the long run. I’d add the moisture-soaking ingredients, such as oatmeal or cornmeal, a little at a time to prevent a batch from getting too lumpy or dry.
Birds have tastes too, so experiment to see which foods they like to eat. If you notice a certain type of cake doesn’t get eaten or a lot of one ingredient remains on the ground after the cake is gone, try something else.
Step seven — Pour and freeze. When all the ingredients have been added, you can pour the suet mix into a form to harden. Here, I used the bottom of a half-gallon juice carton, but there are a lot of other possibilities — a lined cupcake pan, aluminum foil shaped however you want it, cake pans, tuna cans — the list could go on and on. This cake is about 2 inches thick and 4 inches square. I didn’t have much trouble getting the suet out of the carton because it has a wax lining, but if you were using a cake pan, you might want to line it with foil or waxed paper first. Allow the suet to cool on the counter. If you’re not going to use it right away store it covered in the freezer where it should stay fresh for several months.
Step eight — Dinner’s ready! After the suet has hardened, pop it out of its form. Place it in your feeder and it’s dinner time for the birds.