092120_brown butter

Ever wonder why chefs obsess over brown butter? I mean, butter is pretty spectacular already, without doing anything to it, right? While that may be true, I’d like to refer to the old truism that “cheese is milk's leap toward immortality.” Brown butter serves that same purpose with butter.

When you brown butter, what exactly are you doing? First, there is water in butter, and you need to boil that away. That’s all of the foam you see when you heat butter in a pan for a few minutes. Second, there are milk solids, and what you want to do is gently caramelize them. This must be undertaken carefully, because the milk solids sink to the bottom of the pan and can burn. The remaining top layer is pure fat—at various stages, referred to as clarified butter or ghee. But when you stir the browned milk solids and the darkening butter fat together, you achieve something greater than the sum of all parts.

Cooking dinner shouldn't be complicated

RECIPE: Brown Butter-Coconut Cookies 

In France, they refer to it as Beurre Noisette or hazelnut butter. And your nose alone will explain that name. Roasted, and nutty, and absolutely ethereal. (And just wait until you taste it!) The difficulty, as you may imagine, is getting the butter to the perfect stage, and no further. It can quickly burn. (The French, of course, call that beurre noir, or black butter, and have found a use for it. But that’s another story altogether!)

How to Make Brown Butter

To start, have a saucepan with a light colored bottom inside. This will allow you to see the browning as it progresses. Add at least two sticks of unsalted butter and begin to heat it. The temperature you use is up to you. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll be with higher temperatures, and higher temperatures make the browning occur, obviously, faster. That said, for your first run, feel free to use medium or medium-low heat. 

I stir the butter pretty constantly with a heat-proof silicone spatula. You’ll eventually see the foam subside and the bottom begin to brown. When the brown bits smell toasty and appear a bit lighter than you think you want, remove the pan from the heat. And even if you remove it too soon, it will still taste great. You’ll eventually get braver and leave it longer!

Many recipes will tell you to have a bowl of very cold water nearby. At the exact moment, you plunge the bottom of the hot pan into the cold water. Yes. It stops the cooking, but not before splattering all over the cook and the kitchen. No, thank you. You won’t use that method a second time. 

Instead, I have another tablespoon of very cold butter waiting. I simply place that in the pan and swirl gently. That’s enough to stop the cooking and further darkening with (really) minimal splatter. The newly introduced butter will melt. I then pour it all into a heat-proof bowl, being sure to get all of the glorious brown bits from the bottom of the pan.

I urge you to try this. Pour some of your brown butter over fish, or chicken, or vegetables. Use it in cakes and cookies. It is so extraordinary, I’ve even been known to use it on toast. And my fridge is rarely without at least a cup at the ready. 

P.S.—You can freeze brown butter, so I recommend making more than you need every time.

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