Brown Butter Lends Lush, Hazelnut Taste to Variety of Foods

By Hunt, Kathy | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 2, 2009 | Go to article overview

Brown Butter Lends Lush, Hazelnut Taste to Variety of Foods


Hunt, Kathy, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


As the sauce bubbles away on the stove, a sweet scent reminiscent of roasting almonds fills the room.

Step closer to the pan, and you'll see that it's not a milky, nut- infused topping, but instead a thin, golden brown liquid. Another whiff of the warm nuttiness tells you that neither vegetable nor chicken stock nor even beer simmers in the pan. Instead, the sole ingredient of this rich, aromatic sauce is butter.

Can't believe it's just butter? Doubt it or not. In French it's referred to as beurre noisette, or hazelnut butter, but we know it best as brown butter sauce.

Since medieval times, French chefs have incorporated beurre noisette into their cooking. They use it to enliven steamed vegetables, dress up calves' brains and add a kick to white fish such as skate or halibut. Even "financiers," the celebrated French teacakes, feature brown butter. It lends a luscious and intense nutty flavor to these almond-studded sweets.

Brown butter's prominence in French cooking comes as no surprise. After all, the renowned chef and father of modern French cuisine, Fernand Point, did proclaim, "Butter, always butter!" as his golden culinary rule.

Brown butter sauce is popular with cooks not only for its versatility but also because it is so simple to prepare. All you need is a pan, a burner and unsalted butter. After the sauce is finished, it can be used immediately or stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for as long as two weeks.

To create brown butter, cut 1 1/2 sticks of butter into pieces and place them in a saucepan over medium heat. Holding onto the pan's handle, swirl the chunks over the heat so that they melt and start to foam. If the liquid starts to pop, reduce the temperature slightly so that the butter doesn't scorch.

Continue cooking until the foam diminishes, the color darkens and brown particles form. After the liquid transforms into a golden brown, remove the pan from the heat and allow the sediment to settle to the bottom.

A word of warning: The evolution from brown to black happens quickly. Never allow the liquid to reach the latter stage. Burnt butter tastes terrible and should be tossed out.

After achieving the desired brown hues, your work is more or less done. Amazing! In roughly five minutes, you've crafted a classic French sauce.

Before serving the sauce, some cooks strain it in cheesecloth or a fine mesh sieve to remove the dark specks. Others believe that the flecks of brown add color and reinforce the notion of "brown butter," and so forgo straining and present the liquid as is. With no hard-and-fast rule, proper presentation rests in the cook's hands.

Likewise, some cooks add salt, pepper and lemon juice or balsamic vinegar, but that's a matter of personal preference. Those wishing to balance the rich, buttery flavor with something acidic should remember to drizzle in the juice or vinegar after the melted butter has cooled. Otherwise, the inclusion of the cold acid will cause the hot butter to spatter.

The quick change from bland stick of butter to tasty, nutty sauce might seem magical. Yet there's a scientific explanation behind this delectable transformation. As the butter heats to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, the water in it begins to boil off and evaporate. The remaining milk solids, consisting of proteins and carbohydrates, react with one another. This reaction results in the fragrant hazelnut aroma, telltale colored bits and uncomplicated yet delicious sauce.

Brown butter goes well a variety of foods. When added to cookies, cakes, piecrusts, puddings and icings, it provides a lush, hazelnut taste. Obviously, it works well with nuts and pairs nicely with richer fruits such as bananas.

Brown butter sauce also spices up seafood such as scallops, soft- shell crabs, lobster and white-fleshed fish. Drizzled over pasta, pierogies, mashed potatoes, broccoli or brussels sprouts, it makes these dishes zestier and more complex. …

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