Dear Eric: Time to make our Christmas puddings! All my favourite recipes call for suet. Can you give me an accurate measurement if I replace a quarter pound of suet with butter?
Dear Isabel: According to the New Food Lover's Companion, suet is a solid white fat found around the kidneys and loins of animals such as cows. When I first saw you question, I thought the answer would be simple.
Suet and butter are both solid-when-cold fats that add moisture and flavour to dessert items. So if you didn't want to use suet in your Christmas pudding, an equal weight of butter, initially, seemed to me like a potential substitute.
However, when I thought about it more, I remembered the melting points of butter and suet differ greatly, which, in turn, affects how and for what purposes they can be used.
For advice on how butter might react in a steamed Christmas pudding, I contacted Martin Barnett, a baking instructor at the Culinary Institute of Vancouver Island University. He directed me to a reliable source on the subject, the King Arthur Flour website, kingarthurflour.com. That site has an informative article called Fats: the Baker's Friend, with information about suet that deals directly with Isabel's question.
They note suet is used primarily in steamed puddings because it has a higher melting point than butter. They say if you try to substitute butter for suet, during cooking that butter will melt before the pudding has a chance to set. That, in turn, could result in an end product that is heavy and greasy, not things your steamed pudding should be.
The article says suet, on the other hand, doesn't melt until the batter has cooked longer and begun to set, slowly melting into its surroundings, creating tiny holes that make the pudding lighter in texture.
Sounds wonderful, but Isabel doesn't want to use suet. To remedy that, King Arthur Flour says vegetable shortening with its similar melting point is the best substitute, but using it will change the flavour and character of the pudding.
I contacted friends and culinary colleagues, Kevin and Laura Bryan, to get a second opinion. Kevin is a talented chef, Laura a baking instructor at Toronto's George Brown College. Their comments mirrored what's stated above.
They said because suet has more of a role in steamed puddings than just providing moisture and fat, it's tough to come up with a viable alternative, as a substitute will change the texture and mouth feel.
Kevin Bryan said that, although he personally has not tried to substitute anything for suet, he too would suggest replacing the suet with an equal weight of shortening. Before using it, he would freeze it until very firm and then pulse it in a food processor to create nugget-sized pieces and use them in the pudding.
If you didn't want to use suet in a steamed pudding, there is one more option: Find a recipe that does not use it, such as my cranberry pudding below. It is adapted from a recipe in my first book, Everyone Can Cook. The only fat it contains is butter and vegetable-oil spray used to coat the pudding mould. Despite the batter being fat-free, its texture is nice and the cranberries and ingredients such as molasses and honey make it appealingly moist. It freezes well, so you can make it ahead, store it away, and then thaw and reheat it when needed.
STEAMED CRANBERRY PUDDING WITH RAISINS, CURRANTS AND WALNUTS
Tart cranberries nicely balance the concentrated sweetness of the raisins and currants in this pudding. Serve wedges of warm pudding with hard sauce, warm custard, ice cream or sweetened whipped cream. The most time-consuming task is cutting the cranberries, but once that's done, it's easy to make.
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 1 1 /2 hours to 1 3 /4 hours
Makes: 8 to 10 servings
1 (300 gram) bag fresh or frozen cranberries
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup currants
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 1 /2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup packed golden brown sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
* pinches ground nutmeg and ground cloves
1/4 cup cooking molasses
1/4 cup liquid honey
2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup boiling water
* soft butter or vegetable-oil spray
Cut each cranberry into 4 to 6 small pieces and place in medium to large bowl. Add the raisins, currants, walnuts, flour, brown sugar and spices and mix to combine.
Combine the molasses, honey, baking soda, salt and boiling water in a second bowl. Mix the wet mixture into the dry until well combined. The batter will be very, very thick.
Grease a 6-cup pudding mould (available at kitchenware stores) with butter or vegetable-oil spray. Spoon the batter into the pan. Cover mould tightly, ensuring it is watertight, with lightly buttered or vegetable-oil-sprayed foil, or the pudding mould lid, if yours has one and it's tight fitting.
Set a rack in a large, tall pot. Add water to a depth just below the rack. Set pudding on the rack. Cover the pot, bring water to a slow boil, and steam pudding 1 1 /2 to 1 3 /4 hours, checking water level occasionally. Pudding is ready when it is puffed and springs back when gently touched.
Set pudding on a cooling rack, uncover and let cool 10 minutes. If serving now, unmould pudding onto a serving plate and enjoy.
If making the pudding ahead and reheating, to prevent possible sticking, line a wide plate with parchment paper or plastic wrap, and then invert the pudding onto it. When cooled to room temperature, wrap and store the pudding as described below.
Eric's options: The pudding can be made several days in advance and be stored in the refrigerator until needed. It can also be frozen. If you do the latter, set the frozen pudding in the refrigerator to thaw the day before you need it. To reheat the pudding before serving, heat in the microwave about 5 minutes.
Eric Akis is the author of the just-published hardcover book Everyone Can Cook Everything. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.
If there is a cooking issue that has you scratching your head, send your question to Eric by email at eakis @timescolonist.com, by fax to Ask Eric at 250-380-5353 or by regular mail to Ask Eric, Times Colonist, 2621 Douglas St., V8T 4M2