Spending time outdoors, whether it’s sitting in a tree stand or working in the garden, is a big source of joy in my life. But what’s less joyful is the impact being outside in all conditions has on my skin, where the rain, wind, and cold often leave my hands chapped and cracking. Making skin salve from deer tallow is a really satisfying and easy annual project, and its impact on my skin is noticeable. Deer tallow salve is protective and luxurious, thick without being greasy, and a great way to use even more of the animal.
We’re big fans of deer tallow in my household. It’s gotten a bad reputation as inedible and only good for the birds, which I think is completely unfair. But even if you don’t want to eat it, tallow is well worth saving from your successful whitetail hunts.
Tallow and other animal fats used to be the standard for much of our skincare before falling out of fashion compared to plant-based oils. It’s rich in vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as antioxidants. Its ratio of fatty acids is very similar to our own, making it easily absorbed by our skin. Tallow is also excellent for sensitive skin, and tallow soap is often recommended as a treatment for conditions like eczema, dermatitis, and acne. But before you start smearing this wonder ingredient all over yourself, there are a few steps you’ll want to complete.
The amount of tallow you’ll get from any one deer is highly variable based on the time of year and its diet, though does generally have more fat on them than bucks. But because it is so rich and nourishing for the skin, a little goes a long way, and even a lean deer will provide enough for salve.
The tallow is easily identifiable as the waxy white substance coating the internal organs as well as various other deposits throughout the body. The softer fat surrounding the kidneys have the highest percentage of antioxidants and vitamins, but all of it will work well for making a salve.
After hanging your deer, you can usually pull it off by hand in strips with a strong grip and downward motion. Work quickly to remove the fat and put it in the freezer if you won’t be using it right away because deer tallow has a high percentage of omega-3 fatty acids, which go rancid quickly when exposed to oxygen at warm temperatures.
Once you've collected all the tallow, you want to render it to get rid of any bits of meat and filter it into a neutral, shelf-stable state. There are two methods to rendering fat, wet and dry. I prefer wet rendering because it yields a more odorless, purified product.
First, take your tallow and chop it into small pieces or run it through a meat grinder. The easiest method is definitely running it through the meat grinder while still mostly frozen, which will prevent the fat from gumming up the grinder and result in a pile of nice tiny pieces of tallow. Increasing the surface area will also make the rendering process go much faster.
Now put your tallow pieces in a slow cooker or pot on low heat with a few cups of water and some salt, which helps draw impurities out of your tallow and into the water. A good rule of thumb is to add about 1 tablespoon of salt per pound of fat. Simmer it over low heat until all of the fat and oil releases from the meat and gristle. You’ll see a layer of yellowish melted fat above the water, and the chunks will shrink until only gristle and fat solids remain (these make great dog treats!).
Pour your tallow through a fine mesh strainer into a large bowl and let sit until the tallow hardens, which may take several hours. Once the tallow has cooled and formed a solid disk at the top of the bowl, you can remove it, leaving the water behind. There will likely be a grainy, darker patch on the underside of the tallow, which you should scrape off. For cooking, this is generally purified enough, and your tallow is ready to be dried off and stored in airtight jars for future use. But for skincare, one more will ensure it is totally purified and odorless.
To make your tallow even more pure, repeat the rendering process above by reheating the tallow until it melts, this time with only a small amount of water. Pour it off into a bowl or jars, leaving the last bit of melted tallow and water behind. If you’d like to infuse your tallow with some scent without using essential oils, you can add dry herbs like lavender, rosemary, or mint, during the last round of rendering. Strain them out when you pour your tallow into a bowl.
If your tallow was particularly meaty or dirty, you may need to do a few rounds of rendering to get it fully purified. Once it’s solid white all the way through, with no noticeable bits of meat or debris on the bottom, it is ready to use for salve. It should have very little scent (beyond whatever herbs you may have infused into it). At this point, you can also store it in jars, and it will be shelf stable for up to a year.
While the purified tallow is very useful on its own and certainly could be used as a skin protectant, its hard texture at room temperature would make it difficult to apply. By mixing the tallow with a small amount of oil that is liquid at room temperature, it becomes soft and spreadable and also has the added skin benefits of whatever oil you choose to mix it with.
I like to infuse olive or grapeseed oil with dried calendula flowers, which have additional anti-inflammatory and skin-soothing benefits. You can choose to infuse your oil with whatever skin-friendly herbs or flowers you like or leave it plain, but a good ratio is 3 parts tallow to 1 part oil. So for a typical small batch of 6 ounces of tallow, I would use 2 ounces of oil.
To mix the salve, melt your tallow in a double boiler, or a large mason jar in a pot if you don’t have one. Add your oil and take off the heat. At this point, you can add a few drops of essential oil to add more scent to your salve if desired—usually, 20 drops is enough for a small batch. At this point, you can just let the mixture cool to make a solid salve, but whipping it makes it extra luxurious and easy to apply.
To whip your salve, let your tallow and oil mixture cool until it is just beginning to harden but still workable. Use an immersion blender to whip the salve until it is airy and light and stays whipped when you remove the blender. You can also add a teaspoon of arrowroot powder or cornstarch while whipping to absorb some of the grease, but it isn’t necessary.
Scoop your tallow salve into tins or small jars with lids to store. As your salve is a mix of fat and oil with different melting points, it is possible your balm can separate if exposed to very hot temperatures for a long time (leaving it in your car on a sunny summer day, for example). This won’t damage the salve, but it may make the texture more grainy. It will last at least a year if kept dry and cool, but I expect you’ll use it well before that point!