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.
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”) to Sheri Castle’s Browned Butter Peach Upside-Down Cake (“The New Southern Garden Cookbook”).
“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 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. 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.
Pasta stirred with brown butter and sprinkled with bread crumbs is a comforting, homespun dish that can be made in minutes. Add scallops and you have a dish fit for company. You can prepare the following recipe in the time it takes to boil pasta. Make it a vegetarian entrée by substituting blanched vegetables (such as asparagus or cauliflower) for the scallops. Some people have trouble telling when a fat sea scallop is done; quartering them makes the job easy.
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 breadcrumbs (preferably homemade), plus more for garnish
∏ 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 the 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 the scallops and cook until they are just cooked through, about 1 minute.
Remove from heat and stir in garlic and lemon juice. Dump the 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. Serves: 4.
Per serving: 789 calories (25 percent from fat), 37g protein, 109g carbohydrates, 4g fiber, 21g fat (11g saturated), 84mg cholesterol, 635mg sodium.
This recipe is the handiwork of the James Beard Award-winning chef at Atlanta’s Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch.
Linton Hopkins’ Brown-Butter Creamed Winter Greens
For the béchamel 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
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 the béchamel sauce: Melt the butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, whisking constantly, for 1 minute. Slowly whisk in the milk. Add the shallot, bay leaf and peppercorns.
Raise heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, whisking constantly, until the 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 the surface of the sauce and set aside.
To make the greens: Cut the bacon into ¼-inch slices. Cut the slices into ¼-inch-wide sticks. (Note: If you can’t find slab bacon, use the thickest bacon you can find. End pieces cut into chunks work well.) Cook bacon in a Dutch oven or heavy pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden brown but not crisp, about 8 minutes. Transfer the bacon to paper towels to drain; then pour off the fat from the pot and wipe it clean.
Heat the butter in the pot over medium-low heat until brown and fragrant, about 2-3 minutes. Add the onion and cook, stirring constantly, until softened, about 5 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high and stir in the greens one handful at a time, letting each handful wilt before adding the next. Stir in the béchamel sauce, cream, garlic, pepper flakes, salt and pepper.
Cook, stirring, until the greens are tender and coated with sauce, about 10 minutes. Stir in the bacon and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper and serve hot. Serves: 6-8.
– Adapted from “The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook” (UGA Press, $24.95)
Per serving, based on 6: 487 calories (65 percent from fat), 19g protein, 25g carbohydrates, 10g fiber, 37g fat (18g saturated), 93mg cholesterol, 822mg sodium.