Cooking with tallow vs butter: what’s the difference?

We all use some form of fat in our daily cooking, whether for frying, baking, sautéing, or simply adding flavor. Fat is an essential ingredient serving as a cooking medium that also adds texture, richness, and depth to our dishes.

Generally, there are two types of fats used in cooking: animal-based fats and plant-based oils. Among the animal-based fats, tallow and butter are two of the most common options for a wide variety of dishes. However, significant differences arise between the two that set them apart in terms of taste, texture, nutrition, and cooking properties.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at cooking with tallow vs butter to understand their main differences and identify which is better for specific cooking needs.

What is tallow?

Beef tallow

Although not as popular as butter, tallow is a type of rendered animal fat used in cooking for centuries. It’s essentially a rendered form of beef or mutton fat. It also has a high smoke point (up to 420°F). This means that it can withstand higher temperatures without burning, so it’s suitable for frying and roasting.

Tallow is usually white in color with a slightly grainy texture and a distinct savory flavor. Outside of cooking, it is also a common ingredient in the production of soap, candles, and even skincare products like shea butter.

If you want to learn how to make your own tallow, check it out here!

However, not all grocery stores sell tallow, so it may be more challenging to find compared to butter. You can source them at speciality stories or online but you can also make your own beef tallow at home. I do so all the time with brisket trimmings.

Brisket trimmings

The process of rendering tallow involves melting down the fat at a low temperature and then straining to remove impurities.

At room temperature, it solidifies into a solid, almost waxy substance that can be stored for a long time.

What is butter?

Butter doesn’t need much of an introduction as it is a staple in most kitchens. Butter is a dairy product made from churning cream until it separates into solid butterfat and liquid buttermilk. The resulting solids are then collected, shaped into rolls or blocks, and refrigerated to solidify.

Sticks of butter

Although most commonly made from cow’s milk, butter can also be made from the milk of other animals such as goat, sheep, and buffalo. It also comes in salted and unsalted versions. Salted butter is usually used in cooking. Unsalted butter is more commonly used for baking as it allows for better control of the salt content.

Butter has a rich, creamy texture that’s perfect for spreading on toast, baking your favorite goods, or adding to sauces and gravies. So many recipes call for a touch of buttery goodness!

Butter on toast

However, butter has a lower smoke point (up to 350°F), meaning it’s not a good option for high temperature cooks. Hence, it is usually used for sautéing, pan-frying, and baking.

How are they similar?

Believe it or not, tallow and butter can both be used as a spread on toast. It may be surprising, but a thin layer of tallow on warm toast can be quite delicious. They are both in solid form at room temperature, a characteristic common to fats high in saturated fat.

You can heat and melt them down to use as cooking mediums. You can also keep them solid for baking and making pastries. But this is where their similarities end. In terms of flavor, nutrition, and uses, tallow and butter are worlds apart.

Comparing tallow vs butter.

Butter is a staple ingredient found in almost every kitchen, while tallow is often overlooked and not as commonly used. Both are forms of animal fat, but they have distinct differences that can significantly impact the end result of your dish.

If you’re wondering about how these two fats differ, let’s compare their characteristics below and explore the unique qualities they can bring to your cooking.

Flavor profile

As much as we love butter for its creamy, rich taste, tallow has an interesting flavor of its own. People often describe tallow as having a mild nutty flavor and beefy taste, which can add tons of depth to dishes like stews, roasts, and gravies. However, this means that it may not be suitable for all recipes as it can overpower certain delicate flavors.

On the other hand, butter has a desirable creamy flavor that can be adapted to both sweet and savory dishes. It is literally a jack of all trades in the kitchen. Butter is much more versatile than tallow as it can be used in almost everything from sautéing veggies and pan-frying meat to baking pies and making sauces.

Butter and shallots

Butter also has different variations such as salted, unsalted, cultured, ghee, and plant-based, giving you more options to play with in your cooking. 

Nutrition

You might have heard that animal fats are unhealthy, but as with everything, moderation is key. Both tallow and butter mainly contain saturated fats. This can raise cholesterol levels if consumed in excess, increasing the risk for heart disease, among others.

Tallow is pure fat (100% fat) with almost equal amounts of saturated and monounsaturated fats. However, it, especially grass-fed tallow, is also a good source of vitamin D, choline, and other healthy fatty acids like palmitoleic acid, stearic acid, oleic acid, and linoleic acid. It also has 902 calories (kcal) per 100 grams, which is a lot more than the 717 kcal in butter.

rendering beef tallow

On the other hand, butter consists of 80% fat, 16% water, 2% salt, and 2% other milk solids. It has a higher percentage of saturated fat (67%) than tallow, while the rest are monounsaturated (29%) and trans fat (4%). It is also an excellent source of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K, as well as trace amounts of minerals like calcium, magnesium, and potassium.

Uses in cooking

Since we make tallow from beef or mutton fat, it has an umami flavor that adds a beefy and savory note to dishes. It is one of the traditional fats used in cooking, along with canola oil and olive oil. Lard, another rendered fat (from pork fat), is a close cousin of tallow and is considered a good alternative.

Due to its higher smoke point, tallow is excellent for high-heat cooking methods such as deep frying, searing, and roasting. It can withstand temperatures up to 420°F without smoking or burning, which means that it won’t impart any off-flavors to your food. It also remains stable even after multiple uses, making it a more economical and sustainable choice for cooking.

Tallow before it has cooled down
Tallow before it has cooled down

A lot of us are familiar with butter as a popular cooking and baking ingredient. I’m sure most of us have a tub of butter sitting in our fridge at all times. You use butter in almost everything, from making a simple toast and scrambled eggs to baking delicious cakes and cookies to sautéing veggies and cooking steaks. It has a rich and creamy taste that just adds a layer of indulgence to any dish.

However, unlike tallow, butter has a much lower smoke point, which means that it’s not suitable for high-heat cooking. It starts smoking at around 350°F, and if you heat it beyond that, the milk solids present in the butter start to burn and give off an unpleasant taste. Hence, it is best used for low to medium-heat cooking or added at the end to add flavor and richness.

Tallow vs butter: Is one better than the other?

While tallow and butter are not exactly healthy fats, there is no denying that they bring a unique flavor and mouthfeel to some of our favorite dishes. A general rule of thumb would be to use tallow for high-heat cooking, and butter for low or medium-heat cooking.

For recipes that require high heat like deep frying and roasting, tallow is the clear winner due to its high smoke point and stability.

On the other hand, butter shines in dishes that call for rich, creamy, and buttery flavor, something not replicated by any other fat.

Ingredients for compound butter

Whatever you choose, it’s always a good idea to use them in moderation while balancing them with a healthy and well-rounded diet.

FAQ

How to store tallow?

Tallow is shelf-stable at room temperature and can be stored in an airtight container for up to 12 months. One of the best ways to store tallow is in the fridge or freezer to extend its shelf life. When you keep tallow in the fridge it can last up to 18 months, while in the freezer, it can last up to 24 months.

Can I replace butter with tallow?

Generally, butter can be easily substituted with tallow in most recipes. However, it will have a significant impact on the taste and texture of the dish. In addition, some dishes like baked goods may require a specific ratio of fat to achieve the desired result.

How many times can you use tallow?

You can use tallow about three to four times before it starts to break down and become rancid. Make sure to monitor its color and smell as they are indicators of its quality. Once it turns brown and develops a strong, soapy, or otherwise, unpleasant smell, it’s time to discard it.

Recipes with butter:

I use butter in just about recipe but here are some of my favorites.

Grilled Ribeye steak with cowboy butter

Spicy garlic parmesan chicken skewers

Smoked French onion soup

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