Butter: On Browning

For the second installment of “Butter”, we’re going to chat about brown butter. I’m obsessed with the stuff, and usually try to sneak it into any recipe that requires butter. But what’s the hype? Why does it smell so good? Why is it so hard to do? Read on to demystify the secrets of this mystifying ingredient.

The Science
So what does “brown butter” mean? The part of the butter that’s browning is the milk solids, once they’ve separated from the butterfat in the beginning of heating process. You know when you melt butter in the microwave and white seafoam-type stuff floats around the bowl? That’s the milk solids. When you heat butter past this point on the stove, the milk solids sink to the bottom and start to toast up and brown. This is the milk solids caramelizing, creating an amazing smell in your kitchen that most describe as “nutty”, while I personally prefer butterscotchy. It’s just so warm and enveloping, sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t go any further with the recipe; I can stop right there. During this process of browning, the water in the butter also evaporates, creating the bubbling and spitting that you’ll experience. Once the milk bits have browned, you have brown butter.

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The Trick
Browning butter is not that hard. I repeat: browning butter is not that hard! And I’ll tell you why. There are different degrees of brown butter. You’ll notice when the milk solids start to get darker, and you’ll wonder “Is this it? Do I have brown butter?” Well, you sure could have it. Brown butter does not discriminate. You can have light brown butter, you can have dark brown butter, and anything in between. I think scientifically speaking we can say that if you’re smelling good things, you have brown butter. But 7 seconds later, the solids will be even browner. Are you getting nervous? “Oh no, is this what the internet warned me about? Will I have burnt butter in a matter of moments?” If your solids are not black, you’re safe. My point here is that there is a reasonably sized window for removing the butter from the heat that will give you brown butter before it burns. It all depends on how brown and aromatic you want to get. As long as you’re paying attention, you’re in good shape. After some practice, you will feel more comfortable leaving the butter on the heat for longer until it’s just about to burn. That’s my personal b.b. preference, but it will also depend on why you’re browning the butter in the first place.

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2 hours later….back to room temperature and golden yellow.

The Usage
You can use brown butter in any place that you would use normal butter. For me this means browning butter for my baked goods. For others, it may mean as a sauce for fish or pasta, or simply on toast. I prefer the brownest of butters for baking because that butterscotchy flavor will come out the best. When cooking anything with brown butter, be sure to get all of the bits in play with a rubber scraper (obv.) so the flavor is at its maximum. If you answer “yes” to wanting a warm, umami-enhancing flavor added to your dish, using brown butter is a good choice.

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See that’s it’s not completely solid.

The Recipe
The following procedure is how I brown butter, and it works like a charm every time.

Prepare a heat-resistant bowl near your stove or in the sink to pour the butter into once it has browned. Put your butter in a large skillet and place on medium heat. When the butter has melted, turn the heat down and stir constantly with a spatula (this keeps the milk solids from sticking to the skillet and makes for easy cleanup later). After the butter has finished spitting, pay close attention to the milk solids at the bottom of the skillet. Use the spatula to help clear the bubbles from the surface to see better. Once the solids have browned to your liking, take the skillet off the heat and carefully pour the butter into the prepared bowl. If you have a heat resistant rubber scraper, use it to scrape the sides and bottom of the skillet to catch all the butter. Use immediately for hot dishes or let cool for baking.

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The dark and browned milk fats at the bottom are the most important part!

Sometimes I have enough time to wait for the brown butter to solidify to room temperature before I start to make a dough, and other times I’ll throw it in the fridge for a few minutes to cool it off enough to keep the eggs in the dough from cooking. It’s usually a little easier to work the dough when the butter has cooled, but either option will give you delicious results.

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Dumped into a large mixing bowl. If you could smell this lump of fat…

Go forth and brown! What other butter questions are you dying to have answered? Leave them in the comments below ⬇

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Butter: What and When?

Since the beginning of my cookie baking career in 5th grade, I’ve always had questions about butter. What happens to my cookies if I melt the butter? What is brown butter and why is it awesome? Why are there so many types of butter, and what’s the big deal about this fancy European brick butter? The list goes on, and I’m still working on getting to the bottom of many questions. As the holidays draw nearer, I thought I’d help demystify the enigmatic fat that is ~butter~. I talked (virtually) with some of the butter and baking experts of the what’s what of butter. Read on to the one of several posts that will help you make better choices in butter.

First: what is butter?
Butter is churned milk or cream, usually from a cow. The first part of churning separates the skim milk from the buttercream. In the churning process of the buttercream, the butter fat and buttermilk are separated. Have you ever shaken a jar of heavy cream until it gets chunky, with thinner liquid running through the lumps? That’s exactly that – the butterfat, sometimes called popcorn butter, and the buttermilk (sold in cartons just like milk). The buttermilk is separated from the butterfat, and more churning yields regular velvety-textured butter.

How is European butter different from American butter?
Regulations in America require butter to have a butterfat percentage of 80% or more. Land o’ Lakes butter is almost 81% butterfat. European butter tends to have closer to 85% butterfat. This means less water in your butter. A good way to see this is when you brown half a cup of American butter, and half a cup of European butter, you’ll come out with a higher volume of butter with the European butter, because the water in the butter evaporates in the browning process. European cows also tend to eat better than American cows, and are often fed grass instead of mysterious corn feed.

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This is a 1 lb block of butter from Plugra

What is cultured butter?
Cultured butter is not fully synonymous with European butter. European butter is usually cultured, but cultured butter is not always European. Culturing the butter doesn’t make for a higher fat content. For example, Organic Valley sells a cultured butter, and a  European-style cultured butter. The cultured butter has a butterfat content of 80% (thank you, Twitter) and their European-style cultured butter has a butterfat content of 84%. According to Cook’s Illustrated, cultured butter is “made more slowly, with cream that’s allowed to ripen for a few days to develop flavor and then inoculated with bacterial cultures before churning.” The bacteria release lactic acid, giving this butter a deeper flavor that some describe as tangy.

Okay, so that’s all great…but which butter does one choose when baking? And is that butter different if baking cookies or pie crust or croissants or ???

Salted vs. Unsalted
First of all, I’ll start by saying that unless I’m in a pickle, I use unsalted butter for baking. Not that I measure every ingredient to the last granule, but it helps keep your salt amounts accurate. Not all salted butter is treated equally; brands don’t have the same salt-to-butter proportions.

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USA vs. Europe
Who’s butter’s better? Consider King Arthur Flour’s shortbread experiment described in their article “Butter for Baking: Which Kind Should You Use?” where they use European butter and American butter for the same recipe. The shortbread with the European butter came out both drier and greasier than the American butter shortbread. Not ideal for cookies. However, these attributes may be just what you need for your buttery, flaky pie crusts and croissants. That being said, with the extra butterfat goes the extra water, which would help pastries rise in the oven during evaporation. The choice ultimately comes down to several factors, and your personal choice. Maybe you’d rather sacrifice some (potentially minor) height for a flakier pain au chocolat.

Cultured vs. Uncultured
My answer to this is simple: since cultured butter costs more, use regular, uncultured butter. The extra money is not worth the extra flavor you probably won’t enjoy anyway. I asked Kye Ameden, author of the King Arthur Flour article from above, why in the article she said cultured butter isn’t the best for baking:

“[W]hile cultured butter is delicious, it tends to have a unique flavor that’s not always welcome in all recipes. Consider your favorite pumpkin bread or chocolate chip cookies; the zippy tangy might seem out of place. It also tends to be more expensive than Grade AA butter, so we like to save it for putting on top of baked goods when we’ll be sure to enjoy the flavor to the fullest.”

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I did a quick cookie test with a simple recipe (no chocolate chips/solid objects) to see if these claims could be proven. In one batch, I used Cabot AA unsalted butter, and in a second batch I used Plugra unsalted butter. My hypothesis going in was that the first batch would come out higher due to the higher water content of the American butter, and the Plugra flatter, and greasier. However, just the opposite happened.

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I wasn’t all too scientific with this experiment. There are many variables that could have been altered unintentionally. For example, the butter may have been beaten more the second time around. This is a good example of all the little things that can make a difference in your cookies. When seeking consistent results, be vigilant and have patience.

Take these truths bestowed upon you to forge head in this holiday season, and bake your friends’ sorrows away. And stay tuned for the next installments of Butter!

How To: Muddy Buddies! (Video)

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Also known as puppy chow, this was a college party (read: potluck) favorite back in the day. It takes six ingredients, and it’s a lot of fun to make. I made a video to prove it:

Here’s your recipe

Ingredients
9 cups of Chex cereal, in any variety you prefer
1 cup chocolate chips
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) salted butter
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

Directions
Put the cereal in a very large bowl and set aside. Microwave the chocolate, peanut butter, and butter in a bowl until melted and smooth, about 40 seconds. Add the vanilla extract and stir. Pour this over the cereal and combine gently until the cereal is coated evenly. Place the cereal in a gallon sized ziploc bag and add the powdered sugar. Shake well until all the powdered sugar has stuck to the cereal. Lay out to dry for 10 minutes if you can wait,  then serve!

 

It’s great with milk, actually….

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“behind/above the scenes”