Suet dumplings: The real deal
I had a soup with dumplings the other day and it was such a treat. When I was a child, my mum always made them to "stretch" a stew. I vaguely recall she’d use suet, but these days that's probably not considered healthy. I was hoping you might tell me how to make a basic dumpling, and how long they need to cook. How would you adjust the recipe if you added cheese or chopped herbs or something?
I’ve done a little investigating, and to be honest, suet isn’t so much worse than butter in the health stakes that you should avoid it. It has more fat than butter, but then butter is composed of fat and water held in suspension — hence when you melt it there is always a little white liquid in the bottom of the pan. When looking at 100g of each, suet has around 10 per cent more saturated fat, but then unless you’re an Arctic sleigh dog (often fed suet for its energy reserves) you’re not likely to be eating more than a few grams per serve. What suet actually is, is the hard white fat that surrounds the kidneys and loins, of beef or sheep. So, if you’re vegetarian, it’s best avoided.
What suet gives to baking, British especially, is a lightness and fluffiness that butter doesn’t. A traditional steak and kidney pudding just wouldn’t be the same with a butter pastry, although I have made them myself. They need steaming for several hours in a covered pudding bowl and suet just manages to hold the pastry together really well.
Suet is used likewise in traditional treacle pudding — again producing a lovely light texture — which does seem at odds from what one might expect, due to it being kidney fat.
As for suet dumplings — they are gorgeous things aren’t they? And unless you’re eating a few kilos of them I think you should just go ahead and make them with actual suet and enjoy their loveliness. I’ve made suet-free ones for friends who didn’t like the idea of "offal enrobing fat" dumplings and though they were fine, they lacked the character of the original.
Another clever way to make dumplings is to make a scone dough. I cooked at a private members’ club in Chelsea for several years and we celebrated one New Year with a mutton stew. Bill, one of the chefs, braised mutton neck chops and lots of root vegetables for hours until tender, then placed the mixture into a roasting dish and placed herb and cheddar cheese scones on top, slightly overlapping. They would have been about 1cm thick. This was loosely covered and baked in the oven for 30 minutes, then the top was taken off and baked until the scones were browned on the top. I’d never seen it done before but Bill assured me his family had always done it. Fabulous.
However, if you’re wanting to make the real deal then here’s what you need do.
For enough dumplings for 6, allowing 2 each in a soup or a stew, use 150g of self-raising flour and 100g grated suet. Rub together the suet and flour as you would butter into a pastry dough.
Season generously with salt and coarsely ground black pepper, adding any herbs you’d like and possibly some freshly grated horseradish or grain mustard.
Make a well in the centre of the mixture and add enough cold water to bring the mixture together into a pliable, slightly moist but not sticky, dough. Tip on a bench and gently knead for 15 seconds, dusting the bench with extra self-raising flour as needed.
Divide the dough in two and then roll each into a log about the diameter of a golf ball. Cut each log into six and then roll in a little more flour to a ball.
Place the dumplings on top of the stew, no need to poke them in, and for soup just add to the simmering mixture. Put a lid on (or they’ll dry out) and cook for at least 30 minutes. In soup, turn them every 10 minutes or so, for stew turn them over after 30 minutes.
If you make them smaller they’ll need less cooking. I have friends who place them on a stew when it first comes to a simmer on top of the stove or in the oven, but I prefer to have the stew at least half-cooked before adding them.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you’re stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.