Butter Basics

My blog tends to deal more with the theoretical, nerdy aspect of food, stuff that (I hope) makes for an interesting read but rarely ever translates to practical tips for the kitchen. It’s time to mix things up, and devote an entire month to something more practical. All August, we’ll be dealing with home baking.

Christmas fruitcake a la me, 2017

Let’s start with the examination of one of the most temperamental ingredients a baker has to deal with: butter. Choosing the right kind of butter, especially its temperature, can have a huge impact on the final baked product. Butter is incredibly versatile, and its worthwhile to take a closer look at this underappreciated ingredient.

Butter is obtained by churning cream (preferably high-fat double cream) until all the fat adheres into a single mass, separate from the fat-free buttermilk. In the West, the term buttermilk refers to the by-product of butter making, an absolute essential in a Southern fried chicken. In India however, buttermilk means chaas or ghol. While milk and cream are fat in water emulsions, butter is a water in fat emulsion, meaning that now there are tiny droplets of water suspended in a fatty medium. In addition, butter contains a small amount of milk solids.

A duo of colloids (Courtesy : Science and Food UCLA)

Butterfat behaves radically differently at different temperatures, so it is necessary to use butter at a specific temperature, depending on what the recipe demands. Let us take a trip along the temperature spectrum, exploring how butter changes at the mercury rises, and how each of those forms of butter can be used in the kitchen.

Let’s start with a stick of butter straight out of the fridge, around 2-4 degrees Celsius. It is incredibly firm, and not at all ideal for spreading on toast or making cakes. What fridge-cold butter is ideal for however, is pie crusts. You can crumble it and evenly disperse it throughout the flour to get something that resembles wet sand, the so-called sanding or sablage technique of making a shortcrust for pies and tarts.

A slab of cold butter is essential in making flaky scones and crumbly shortbread. Cold butter is the key ingredient in a multi-layered puff-pastry. The butter needs physical integrity to maintain distinct layers. In the oven, the water in the butter turns to steam, which causes the dough to puff, creating distinct layers in the process. If it’s too soft, it will simply ooze out and you won’t get the desired puff.

Making puff pastry (Courtesy : Fine Cooking)

Whenever recipes call for softened butter, they are referring to butter at around 20 degrees Celsius, the temperature where the butter has a bit of give and can be indented with a finger. If you need chilled butter for sanding, you need softened butter for creaming, the starting point for most cake recipes.

Creaming is the technique of beating softened butter and sugar till light and fluffy. Creaming helps incorporate tiny bubbles of air into the butter, which expand in the oven, making our cakes rise. If the butter is too firm, air wouldn’t be incorporated at all; if it is too soft, the air bubbles formed during creaming would collapse. Both would result in a flatter, denser cake; so when a cake recipe calls for softened butter, take it seriously.

Creaming butter for cakes

“Anyone who has tried to cream cold butter will recognize the four stages of declining impetus : 1) develop tendonitis / impatience with declogging the mixer beaters; 2) eat too many sugar-crusted butter nuggets out of the bowl; 3) set the remainder aside to reach a  workable temperature; 4) get caught up in the afternoon showing of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. By the time Howard Keel breaks into “Spring, Spring, Spring”, you’ll have a bowl of over-softened butter with no cake-mixing inclination whatsoever.”

Niki Segnit, Lateral Cooking.

Climb a little higher to around 25 degrees, and you have butter of a spreadable consistency. This is the butter you want for your sandwiches and toast. Butter at this stage is too soft for creaming, but is perfect for incorporating other ingredients into. You could add salt to it to make salted butter, great for toast. Using salted butter also eliminates the need of adding additional salt in your cake or cookie mix, although seasoned bakers prefer to use unsalted butter in their baking as it gives them more control on the amount of salt in the final product. Of course, table butter can get a lot more interesting than that.

Compound butters (basil, sundried tomato, parsley and activated charcoal)

Another great thing you could make with 25-degree butter is the so-called flavoured or compound butter, which simply involves mixing in some flavouring agent into the butter, like herbs and spices. Simply mix in the desired ingredient into the soft butter, form a log and chill. Top your next steak with a piece of garlic-parsley butter, or simply slather some butter spiked with orange zest on a slice of fresh baguette. And then there’s cultured butter, made by adding bacteria to the cream before churning, resulting in a butter with notes of acidity and a much more complex palette of flavours.

Around 32-35 degrees, the butterfat melts, and the emulsion breaks. Melted butter does not have the body which our butter had so far, but that too has its use. If you use this butter and follow the same technique of assembling a cake, what you get is a batter with virtually no air; something you might want in a cookie. If you want a cakier, fluffier cookie, go for softened butter; but if you like yours with a brittle snap, like a gingersnap or a tuile, go for melted.

Paper thin coffee tuiles : melted butter always

At this stage, you could skim off the fat and strain out the milk solids to make clarified butter which has a very high smoke point, (normal butter has a much lower smoke point due to the milk solids which tend to brown and burn easily) ideal for searing. Allow the milk solids to brown a little before straining them off and you’ve got ghee, which is clarified butter with a background nuttiness. Bengali-style gawa ghee tends to be even more nutty and caramelized in its flavour, and Bengali cooking would be incomplete without it.

Take the melted butter further and a magical transformation occurs. Above 100 degrees, the water boils off, leaving just the fat and milk solids. Around 120-140 degrees, the Maillard reaction sets in (more on that in our Kosha Mangsho article) causing the milk solids to brown. What we have now is brown butter or beurre noisette; a gorgeous ingredient with a complex, nutty flavour. Drizzle some brown butter on your next plate of scrambled eggs or use it in your next batch of chocolate chip cookies; you can thank me later.

Brown Butter (Courtesy : Serious Eats)

Butter can make or break your dish. Choose the right kind however, and you have a whole array of opportunities open for you. Stick to some of the cardinal rules and then, let your creativity soar. And if you’re new to home baking, boy have I got a treat in store for you! The next four weeks will be devoted to a long and amazing conversation I had with a senior and passionate home cook, the perfect starting point for the aspiring home baker. So do join me next time as we continue our home baking odyssey.

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