Thanksgiving is a time to share and give thanks. This holiday, why not share a few leftovers by putting together a simple recipe for your feathered friends?
In the process of Thanksgiving prep, you might notice a few feeder favorites make their way across your counter: corn, pecans, bread, cranberries, apples, and more. A great option for these leftovers is creating a suet feeder, a rich, protein-filled treat for birds in wintry months.
Suet is rendered animal fat—you can buy this in a bird food supply store or butcher shop. Some meat counters will even give you beef fat trimmings for free, just ask them to run it through a meat grinder.
Alternately, if you’ve ever wondered what to do with leftover cooking fats, suet can be a responsible way to reuse it. Throwing fats and oils down the sink or into the trash is not merely wasteful, grease sticks to your pipes and tossed fat will likely become methane in a landfill, upping your carbon footprint.
Here’s a basic recipe, with some variations below:
- 1. Render the fat: To create your own suet, you need to first render the fat so that it can form and hold a cake shape. This involves melting the fat over a moderate-low heat until it becomes liquid (there should be no meat traces left). Next, pour it over a cheesecloth or fine strainer. Repeat. Strain at least twice so you have pure, liquid fat.
- 2. Add-ins: Once you have hot, rendered suet, you can add the fixings. Consider cornmeal or flour, oats, chopped pecans, peanuts (unsalted), sunflower seeds, dried crumbled bread, dried chopped apples or berries, cracked corn, raisins or craisins. Recipes vary on proportions, so experiment a little! You could start with 1 cup fat: 1 cup flour: 1 cup other add-ins.
- 3. Choose a mold: Pour your mix into a mold. Be creative: Cupcake liners in muffin tins or empty egg cartons can make great molds, just pour in the suet and add a little twine or yarn so that when it hardens (which should happen at room temperature) you can hang it from a tree. Another simple feeder involves taking a small log and chip in a few nitches that you can pour suet into, and later nail your feeder to a tree. A ribbon-strung pinecone can also make a simple, elegant mold (just ask Martha Stewart), dip the cone in suet, roll in a few extra fixings and done.
- 4. Serving instructions: Freeze your suet in the mold for two hours, then set it outside for the birds!
Who to expect: Suet is sure to draw insect-lovers like wrens, warblers, and creepers. For those plagued by pecking it can offer woodpeckers a tasty alternative to cedar house siding.
Feeders sometimes draw squirrels, cats, or raccoons, so be careful where you place it and consider only putting out as much food as the birds will eat in a day or two. Be sure to read Audubon’s feeder tips article for ideas.
Working with fat: This is a perfect treat for cold winter months and can help bulk up migrating birds. However, once the thermometer passes fifty degrees you want to be careful. Fat goes rancid quickly and the foul-smelling mess isn’t good for birds. As with any feeder, be sure to inspect the suet for any signs of decay and don't leave it unmonitored for long.
Turkey trimmings? Suet shoud be hard at room temperature, which is why most people recommend beef or lamb fat, though some folks have made great feeders using bacon drippings. A good trick is to store grease from cooking these meats in a jar in your freezer so that it’s ready-to-go for suet making. Fat from turkeys, however, melts faster and can go rancid more quickly, so it’s safest to simply save it for the gravy.
If traditional suet sounds daunting, consider the vegetarian option. You can swap meat fat for vegetable shortening, or for a great all-year-option consider a sticky, sweet favorite of birds and humans alike: peanut butter.