How to Cook With Butter

by Mary Strain

    The legendary Julia Child loved to cook with butter, and teased the weight-conscious with quips such as, "If you're afraid of butter, use cream." Butter is undeniably wonderful in cooking, and a child's face lights up at butter-rich delicacy as simple as buttered bread. Its rich, fresh taste and creamy texture have never been adequately duplicated by anything else, and it remains fundamental to dozens of basic cooking techniques. So go ahead: walk on the wild side. As Child observed: "Everything in moderation --- including moderation."

    Clarified butter is butter with the milk solids and water removed; it is pure liquid butterfat. Butter is clarified by heating unsalted butter in a saucepan, skimming off the froth, and removing milk solids by straining the butter liquid through a cheesecloth. Clarified butter is good for making hollandaise sauce and for sautéing, according to the Joy of Baking website. It has a high smoke point, which means it can be used to fry things without easily burning. If cooked a little longer, clarified butter will deepen to a brown color and is useful for adding a nutty taste to baked goods. Slightly browned clarified butter is known as ghee and is fundamental in Indian cookery.

    Creaming butter means mixing firm (not soft or melted) butter with sugar, cutting the sugar crystals in until the mixture achieves a creamy consistency. A wooden spoon or a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment does the trick. The goal of creaming is to use the sugar granules to beat air bubbles into the butter and coat the individual granules with butter, which in turn creates a light-rising batter for baked goods such as sweet pastries, cookies and cakes. The leaven used in the recipe inflates the little air bubbles, causing the batter to rise. The cooking website O Chef specifies that the broad rule for creaming butter is to use 1/3 to 1/2 as much butter as sugar, and that butter may need to be creamed for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the recipe.

    Many French, Cajun and Italian dishes, such as soups, stews and gumbos, are based on a roux. A roux is a sauce base made with 1 part butter and 1 part flour. A classic gumbo roux calls for 2 tablespoons of butter to be melted in a pan, and 2 tablespoons of flour to be gradually stirred in until the roux is chocolate brown, but a roux for a white sauce like Alfredo is not allowed to darken. The site warns that it's important not to burn the roux, and that if it's even slightly scorched, it must be thrown out, since the slightest tinge of burned taste will spoil a roux. Gradually add milk to a light roux, and cook until thickened, to create a white sauce. Add Parmesan cheese and herbs, or some Parmesan herbed bottled dressing, for a quick Alfredo or Primavera type sauce to toss with pasta and vegetables.

    Many cooks prefer to use unsalted butter, because they will then be able to precisely control the amount of salt in the dish. The Wisconsin Cheese website recommends using unsalted butter with seafood and baked goods because its taste is light and subtle. The O Chef website also recommends unsalted butter for butter creams and butter sauces, but adds that both salted and unsalted butter may be used in baking.

    About the Author

    Mary Strain's first byline appeared in "Scholastic Scope Magazine" in 1978. She has written continually since then and has been a professional editor since 1994. Her work has appeared in "Seventeen Magazine," "The War Cry," "Young Salvationist," "Fireside Companion," "Leaders for Today" and "Creation Illustrated." She earned her Bachelor of Arts in English from Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.

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