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September 24, 2019
Brown Butter Is Better Butter

Once you’ve perfected toasting your butter, add it to pudding, drizzle it over ice cream, and pour it onto slices of fresh tomato.

Brown butter’s beauty is capricious in nature. You may have perfected it by accident but took it for a mistake. You may have tried to make it intentionally and failed. Therein lies the catch: Brown butter is easy to make when you’re not trying—and it requires your utmost attention when you are. But the nutty dimensions butter takes on when pushed to the very cusp of burnt—what the French call “beurre noisette” and drizzle on fish and pasta—makes it a practice worth perfecting.

“We put it in everything,” says Minh Phan, chef at Porridge and Puffs, an innovative restaurant featuring congee, desserts, and creative vegetable dishes in Los Angeles’s Filipinotown. There’s not a lot of dairy on the menu, but her kitchen will go all out for brown butter, she says, whether allowing it to star in mochi puffs or subtly deploying it in pastry batter or a savory porridge.

“It’s unmistakable, and you can’t substitute it,” says Eric Bolyard, cofounder of Black & Bolyard, a brand that sells grass-fed brown butter in jars for retail. He and cofounder Andrew Black were cooking at Eleven Madison Park when they decided to jar one of the restaurant’s secret weapons for home cooks. “Anywhere you use butter, brown butter is going to add delicious notes of caramel and nuttiness, anything from a roast chicken to a chocolate chip cookie dough,” says Black. Smear it on bagels with whitefish instead of cream cheese, brush it on grilled meats, or slather it on pancakes, they say. Their ready-to-spread product appears like speckled, café au lait–colored frosting in a tub.

As much as chefs swear by it, brown butter won’t taste like much by itself—it needs something to complement. It’s the je ne sais quois of an omelet and a traditional addition to madeleine batter. Phan says its nuttiness can further develop a simple flavor, or “equalize” a more complicated one. “For something really bright-flavored, like with ginger and lemongrass, we tend to find that brown butter is a great grounding agent,” she says.

The most important lesson in cooking brown butter is learning when to stop

While you can be rash in using it, making brown butter at home takes precision. It begins by melting butter in a pan over medium-low heat until it bubbles and foams. This is when water content evaporates, and eventually pure, golden liquid fat rises to the top; milk solids sink to the bottom. If the fat is strained from the solids, the result is clarified butter or ghee. Continue cooking a couple more minutes until the solids have darkened to honey, then chestnut, hues, infusing the liquid fat with toasty flavor—that’s browned butter. (It’s similar to making a chestnut or dark roux, but the proteins browning are from milk rather than flour.)

The most important lesson in cooking brown butter is learning when to stop. The worst result is butter that has turned gritty, burnt, and even black. Throw that away and start again. (Mildly golden butter is also not brown butter.) When you’re doing it right, you’re constantly stirring the melted butter as a light brown freckling appears in the bottom of the pan. Because timing greatly depends on the ratio of the size and shape of your pan to how much butter you have, making brown butter is a little different every time. The part that can be learned only by experience is identifying the perfect aroma. If it smells like freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and looks about the color of those finished cookies—dark tan—take it off the heat. To prevent the pan’s residual heat from continuing the cooking process, pour the butter into an ovenproof bowl right away. The risk of burning can also be solved, not so intuitively, by upping the amount of butter. “A couple tablespoons can burn really easily,” says Bolyard. A stick or two? Because that will slow down the process considerably, it’s not so risky. So while going the extra length to brown your butter, why not make more to store?

Bolyard and Black suggest using grass-fed cow’s milk butter for its more robust flavor. The yellower the butter, the higher the beta-carotene content and the more grass the cows ate. (Don’t worry too much about the butter’s water content; in the process of making brown butter—or clarifying it—excess water is evaporated in the process.) A heavy-bottomed pan is a plus for even heat distribution, but don’t use cast iron. You’re going to need to see when the butter is nicely browned, not burned. And if you’re making a large batch for later use (i.e., more than one stick), opt for a pot with high sides; Bolyard and Black warn that the height of foaming butter might surprise you.

Phan likes to separate the solids and use them separately from the clarified, uniformly colored brown butter. The solids are much stronger in flavor, she says, so she might dust them on sweet or savory dishes. Bolyard and Black keep the solids inside their jarred brown butter products to lend them more flavor. It’s just a matter of preference—and neither way is a mistake.

RECIPE: Brown Butter Banana Brûlée Tapioca Pudding

Cathy Erway

Cathy Erway is the author of the cookbooks The Food of Taiwan and Sheet Pan Chicken, and the memoir The Art of Eating In. She co-wrote Win Son Presents: A Taiwanese American Cookbook. She hosts the podcast Self Evident, exploring Asian American stories. She has won a James Beard Award and IACP award for her writing at TASTE.