Butter is a chef’s secret weapon. It gives dishes unmistakable creaminess and depth and provides the perfect foundation for so many flavours. While some people worry about butter’s saturated fat and cholesterol, you really only need a bit of the flavourful fat to elevate your dishes.
For me, margarine is never a substitute, especially in baking. Margarine is basically vegetable oil that has been processed, so if I’m looking to lighten a dish, I’ll reach for olive oil. As a rule, 1 teaspoon of butter equals ¾ teaspoon olive oil.
How it’s made
Butter is so simple to make. Raw milk that hasn’t been homogenized separates into a top layer of cream and a lower layer of low-fat milk. Churning the cream layer makes a semi-solid butter as well as some liquid known as buttermilk. Artisans do this process the old-fashioned way using a churn, which can tire out your muscles, but gives you a lot of control over consistency. Using an electric mixer, butter can be made in a flash. Anyone who has accidentally made butter from over-whipping cream has seen how fast it can happen!
How it tastes
Butter essentially tastes like cream, but depending on the quality of milk and what the cows were munching on, the flavour and colour can really vary. Just think how different the grasses, herbs and grains grown in the South of France are from those found in the Midwest. In Australia, for instance, cows graze on grasses that are pretty high in beta-carotene, the same nutrient that makes carrots orange, so our butter tends to be deeper yellow than the European and American varieties.
How to store
Butter absorbs the flavours of other foods, so be sure to have it covered when it’s in the refrigerator. Butter will keep in the refrigerator for up to a month and in the freezer for 6 to 9 months.
Also known as European butter, cultured butters are made from fermented cream, which gives the butter a slightly tangy quality. A number of artisan dairies are making beautiful cultured butters in the US and Australia, but take note that these are super flavourful butters, so reserve them for finishing dishes or buttering your toast rather than cooking them into recipes.
Clarified butter is butter that doesn’t have milk solids, which means it can handle higher cooking temperatures (up to about 400 degrees Fahrenheit) without scorching. It’s a great choice for frying fish, scallops and steaks. It’s also the only type of butter to use in a hollandaise; regular butter has too much water, which will cause the sauce to break.
To make: Melt a pound of unsalted butter over medium-low heat in a heavy saucepan. When it starts to bubble, reduce the heat to low. Use a spoon to remove the white foam that begins to form on the surface, doing your best not to mess with the melted butter below. This white layer is milk solids and you’ll need to keep skimming it off until the foam stops forming, about 10 to 15 minutes. Then, remove the pan from the heat. The water and any remaining milk solids will sink to the bottom. Carefully pour off the clear fat into a measuring cup or container, leaving the solids and water behind. One pound of butter will get you roughly 1½ cups of clarified butter.
To store: If you’re going to use it within a day or two, you can leave it out at room temperature. Any longer, put it in the fridge. It’ll solidify like butter and should last about a month.
Brown butter is the result of toasting the butter’s milk solids. It gives dishes a deep nuttiness and it’s worth mastering this simple technique. Brown butter transforms simple dishes: use it to sauté scallops or drizzle it warm over grilled veggies.
To make: First, use a stainless steel pan so you can see the colour. Trust me, colour matters; if the butter gets too dark brown, it will taste bitter. Heat the pan to medium and add your butter. It’ll begin to foam as the water evaporates. When the foaming stops, the milk solids will start to brown, and you’ll begin to smell the classic nuttiness of brown butter. When the butter turns amber coloured, remove the pan from the heat. Use right away or pour the butter into a bowl and allow to cool before storing in the fridge. It’ll keep for about two weeks.
Remember I said that butter picks up flavours easily? Well here’s where it comes in handy. You can blend practically any herbs into softened butter to make an aromatic spread. Try dill, rosemary, capers, chives, chilies, lemon zest, thyme or rosemary. Compound butters are classically served on top of steaks and chops, but you can use them in any dish in place of plain butter. Toss compound butters into freshly cooked pasta or place on top of steamed veggies or grilled fish. Just be aware, that many of the additions you will add to your butter won’t be able to bear the high temperature of cooking, so only use them to finish a dish.
Salted or Unsalted
There’s nothing quite like a thick slice of warm homemade bread slathered with salted butter. But when cooking, go for unsalted butter so you can control the amount of salt in your dish. Keep in mind that salt acts like a preservative, so unsalted varieties will perish sooner.