You'd butter believe it
Let us talk, you and I, about butter. Butter makes everything better. It lightens your bakes, and glossifies your sauces, and is essential to your morning carbs from pancakes to toast to biscuits. I like salted butter melted into my morning slice, and chilled sweet cream unsalted on fresh rolls with dinner. And you know how I feel about a flavored compound butter and what it can do for you—please see stuffing butter and miso maple butter and pizza butter to refresh your memories.
But as much as butter makes everything better, can you make butter better? The answer my friends is of course you can. And by making better butter then you have better butter to make other things better with. So here are some of my tips and tricks for butter upgrades.
First off, I say in my most Ina Garten voice, get yourself some really good quality butter. We live in a time of butter abundance, and there are many excellent varieties of butter available. I like Kerrygold in both salted and unsalted varieties, ditto Plugra. The Lurpak salted is my preferred toast topper, if they carry it near you, and Isigny St. Mere will change the color of your sky if you can source it. But what you are essentially looking for is a European style butter, which has less water and more butterfat than traditional American versions. If you want a definitive look at the best fancy butters, peruse our fancy butter tasting.
Now that you have upped your basic butter game, let’s look at a few things you can do to really next-level that sucker.
First, whip your butter. Whipped butter could not be easier, it is exactly what it sounds like, softened butter is whipped with a little extra milk to incorporate air and create a soft, fluffy, uber-spreadable butter. This is what I make for dinner parties and holidays, when you want your butter to schmear easily on soft rolls. For every cup of softened butter add ¼ cup of whole milk and whip in your stand mixer with the whisk attachment for 2-3 minutes until light and fluffy. Store covered in the fridge until an hour before you want to serve, then let sit at room temperature. If you want those restaurant-style fancy pats, place the soft whipped butter in a pastry bag with a fluted tip and pipe the shapes you want onto a parchment lined baking sheet and then freeze for an hour before transferring to a plastic zip top bag until you want to use. They will thaw quickly, so place them on your butter plates from frozen about 20 minutes before serving.
Then we move to brown butter. Most people only make brown butter as needed for recipes, but I am here to say that keeping brown butter on hand is a pro move. The nutty flavor improves pretty much everything. I do a pound at a time and then store in the fridge in a container. Just gently heat a pound of butter in a saucepan until the milk solids turn golden brown and it smells nutty. You are looking for sort of a outside of a pretzel brown, not black coffee grounds. If you burn it, you’re done, just start over. When the butter has reached a good nutty fragrance, remove from the heat and transfer to a container. Let sit at room temperature until it becomes opaque. Then stir the little brown bits in so that they are well distributed throughout the mixture, cover and stash in the fridge. A little on steamed vegetables makes them instantly dinner party fare. Toss some with your pasta or rice or other grains and they will sing. You’ll find yourself reaching for it again and again. Remember that this is a finishing butter, so you can melt it and put it into baked goods, but don’t sauté in it or the milk solids will burn.
Speaking of not burning, this is where we talk about clarifying butter. Clarifying butter removes the water and milk solids and leaves the pure fat, which has a much higher smoking point and allows you to cook in butter for flavor without risking burning. Indian cookery uses ghee, which I keep on hand, but it is easy to make your own. Simply heat your pound of butter in a saucepan over gentle heat until the foaming subsides and the milk solids have sunk to the bottom but not begun to brown. Remove from the heat and carefully spoon off the top clear layer of butter leaving the milk solids behind. Keep covered in the fridge.
On to storage. I keep salted butter for toast and sandwich anointing at room temperature in a butter bell, a ceramic device that stores the butter upside down with a water seal to prevent spoilage. That way it is always super spreadable. The salt is a preservative as well, so as long as you change out the water every few days and use it in a reasonable time frame there is no risk of it going rancid. Unsalted butter I store in the freezer in zip-top freezer bags or in the fridge in airtight containers to prevent off flavors. Butter is notorious for picking up the scents of other things nearby, and nothing is less fun than your butter not tasting like butter. For browned butter, clarified butter or compound butters I use tightly-sealing glass jars, since some plastic can allow for seepage. Any butter you don’t intend to use within a week, store it in the freezer.
And finally, if you have hard butter and need it to soften quickly, resist the temptation of the microwave, and simply cut the butter into half-inch cubes, spread out on a plate and leave on the counter for 15 minutes. Scrape into your stand mixer and beat with the paddle attachment until soft enough to continue with your recipe, or you can whip it in a bowl with your hand mixer.