Butter has to be one of the hardest-working ingredients in the Western larder. It makes cakes tender and sauces silken. It's a splendid spread all by itself. It's a reliable fat for pan-frying foods that cook quickly. But heat it too long, and its milk proteins and salts will start to burn.
Some call that brown butter. I call it black magic.
Cooking with brown butter is like listening to Billie Holiday; it adds depth, flavor, mystery and just a shade of burn. Plain butter — well, that's Doris Day on a warm sunny afternoon.
I have been using brown-butter variations to sauce fish and vegetables for years. A hazelnutty brown-butter sauce — beurre noisette in French — goes very well with soft-shell crabs, skate wings, clams and all manner of delicate white fish.
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Ditto asparagus, green beans, cauliflower, squash and mushrooms. In just a few minutes, brown butter will turn a plain pasta or chicken dish into something elegant, something luxurious.
Not long ago, I began to discover the pleasure of brown-butter baking. First, a simple pound cake. Then a little experimenting with brown butter in other cakes. Soon, I started to notice brown butter in all kinds of dessert recipes — from Rebecca Lang's Brown-Butter coffeecake with peaches and blueberries (from Around the Southern Table, $29.95, Oxmoor House) to Sheri Castle's browned butter peach upside-down cake (The New Southern Garden Cookbook, $35, The University of North Carolina Press).
"Brown butter is pretty much like butter plus,butter as an overachiever," says Cynthia Wong, who recently left her job as executive pastry chef at Empire State South in Atlanta to move to London.
"Just the simple act of cooking it until it browns brings out all these wonderful toasted nut and caramel flavors, and even a bit of a savory edge," she said. "It adds a depth of flavor I liken to getting a really beautiful crust on a grilled steak."
As I put out a call for sweets made with brown butter, friends started telling me about their brown-butter oatmeal cookies; apple cake with brown-butter/cream cheese frosting; and buttermilk pecan pie with brown butter. And hey, did you see that recipe for winter pear cake with pistachios and brown butter?
Wong turned me on to her rich, dense cake of brown butter, apples and toasted pecans. She says her husband calls it "hiking cake" because you could survive on it for days — should you lose your way in the forest. It calls for steeping a vanilla bean in hot brown butter and yields a batter that is worth eating like ice cream. If you don't like it, take a hike.
Easy linguine with scallops and brown butter
16 ounces linguine (may use spaghetti, angel hair, fettuccine or other pasta of choice)
6 tablespoons butter
12 large sea scallops (about 1 pound), chopped into quarters
1½ tablespoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup toasted bread crumbs (preferably homemade), plus more for garnish
2⁄3 cup chopped parsley
kosher or sea salt
freshly cracked black pepper
Boil pasta in a large pot of salted water over medium-high heat until al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside in a large bowl.
While pasta is boiling, melt butter in a cast-iron skillet over medium-low heat. Cook butter, stirring regularly, until the solids are just beginning to turn brown, about 3 minutes. Spoon about 1 teaspoon butter over the bread crumbs and toss to coat. Add scallops to pan and cook until they are just cooked through, about 1 minute.
Remove from heat and stir in garlic and lemon juice. Dump scallops and brown-butter sauce over the pasta. Add bread crumbs and parsley, and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Divide into four large serving bowls and garnish with bread crumbs. Makes 4 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 789 calories, 37 g. protein, 109 g. carbohydrates, 4 g. fiber, 21 g. fat, 84 mg. cholesterol, 635 mg.
This recipe is the handiwork of the James Beard Award-winning chef of Atlanta's Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch.
Linton Hopkins' brown-butter creamed winter greens
For the Bechamel sauce:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 small bay leaf
6 black peppercorns
For the greens:
6 ounces slab bacon, rind trimmed (see note)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup finely chopped onion
3½ pounds baby winter greens (such as collards, mustard greens or kale), stemmed and coarsely chopped
½ cup heavy cream
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar, or to taste
To make bechamel sauce: Melt butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in flour and cook, whisking constantly, for 1 minute. Slowly whisk in milk. Add shallot, bay leaf and peppercorns. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to medium and cook, whisking constantly, until sauce thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes. Strain the sauce through a fine sieve into a bowl. Press parchment paper or plastic wrap directly onto surface of sauce and set aside.
To make the greens: Cut bacon into ¼-inch slices. Cut the slices into ¼-inch-wide sticks. Cook bacon in a Dutch oven or heavy pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden brown but not crisp, about 8 minutes. Transfer bacon to paper towels to drain; then pour off fat from pot and wipe it clean.
Heat butter in the pot over medium-low heat until brown and fragrant, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add onion and cook, stirring constantly, until softened, about 5 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high and stir in the greens one handful at a time, letting each handful wilt before adding the next. Stir in bechamel sauce, cream, garlic, pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until greens are tender and coated with sauce, about 10 minutes. Stir in bacon and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper and serve hot. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Note: If you can't find slab bacon, use the thickest bacon you can find. End pieces cut into chunks work well.
Nutrition information per serving, based on 6: 487 calories, 19 g. protein, 25 g. carbohydrates, 10 g. fiber, 37 g. fat, 93 mg. cholesterol, 822 mg. sodium.
Adapted from The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook (UGA Press, $24.95)
This simple rustic cake is mixed by hand from the sort of basic staples that you are likely to have around the house. You could leave off the glaze and still have a very handsome and delicious sweet. Pears may be substituted for the apples.
Cynthia Wong's brown-butter hiking cake with apples and pecans
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
12 ounces butter, cubed
1 vanilla bean
2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups peeled and thinly sliced apples
1 cup chopped toasted pecans, divided
1 cup sifted powdered sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Generously spray a tube pan with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.
Sift together flour, baking soda, kosher salt and cinnamon. Set aside.
Place butter in a cast iron skillet or shallow, heavy- bottomed pot. Split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds out. Place seeds and bean in skillet with butter. Melt over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until browned and fragrant, about 5 to 8 minutes. Pour into a large mixing bowl and set aside to cool for 15 minutes at room temperature.
Pick vanilla bean out of butter. Whisk in sugar, followed by eggs. Using a stiff wooden spoon or rubber spatula, fold in flour mixture. The batter will be thick and stiff. Fold in apples and ½ cup toasted pecans.
Scrape batter into the tube pan and bake for 50 minutes, or until a wooden skewer inserted close to the tube opening of the pan comes out clean.
Let cake rest in the pan for 30 minutes. Then turn it out onto a cooling rack and let cool completely.
Whisk powdered sugar, milk and vanilla extract together until smooth. When cake is cool, drizzle the cake with glaze and sprinkle with remaining ½ cup pecans. makes 10 to 12 servings.
Nutrition information per serving, based on 10: 623 calories, 6 g. protein, 85 g. carbohydrates, 2 g. fiber, 30 g. fat, 138 mg. cholesterol, 619 mg. sodium.