Cooking with San Francisco Cooking School: Brown Butter Adds Depth to Almost Anything

By | November 14, 2013
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Photo: SF Cooking School

When school starts around here there is one scent that permeates the kitchens for both culinary and pastry students: brown butter.

The smell of the toasty, nutty butter makes it way through the kitchens as students learn what happens when butterfat and milk solids separate, and those milk solids begin to brown. They compare the flavors of a very light brown butter to a deep, almost black beurre noir and even burn it on purpose so they can analyze the process from start to finish to way too far.

In the pastry kitchen the butter makes it way into cakes or cookies. In the savory kitchen it becomes a sauce or a soup garnish. In short, it’s a vehicle for infusing a rich, roasted flavor into almost anything. It’s gotten me thinking about using it more at home.

Browning butter takes some patience, but it’s quite simple. First, start with good butter—you’re concentrating the flavors when you brown it, so if the butter isn’t tasty in the beginning, it certainly won’t get better as you brown it. I look for butters that have a higher fat content, and definitely unsalted. You want to have control of the seasoning here, so start with unsalted butter and add your own salt later.

Next, pick the right pan. A stainless-steel sauté pan works best—you can clearly see the changes in color as the butter transforms, whereas a dark- surfaced or nonstick pan makes this difficult to do. Butter will brown quicker in a sauté pan versus a saucepan, so that is always my choice when picking the cookware.

Place the butter over medium-low heat and keep an eye on it. It will begin to foam as the milk solids and butterfat melt and separate, and the water begins to evaporate and cook off. As the foam subsides, the milk solids start to change color, from opaque white to shades of brown. Do not walk away at this
point! Your butter will reach an ideal shade of hazelnut brown and then all too quickly go to bitter black, so you want to be there to pull it off the heat when it reaches that ideal color. I even transfer mine to a bowl, if I’m not using it right away, so the carryover heat from the pan doesn’t continue to darken the butter.

Now, what to do with your liquid gold?

I have a few favorite places I like to see it show up. Chocolate chip cookies and tart doughs are incredible with brown butter. Pasta sauce is a natural, saving some of the pasta cooking water to lengthen the sauce. Simply toss the cooked pasta into the brown butter with a few tablespoons of cooking water, then add your favorite minced fresh herbs, freshly grated Pecorino and a pinch of salt.

I also love to infuse butter with sage. The combination screams “fall in Italy” and while ideal for pasta, I love it in the preparation below— tossed with finely shredded Brussels sprouts. If you prefer, substitute any fall veggie— squash, parsnips, turnips or sweet potato—and cook until tender.

Get creative: Brown butter is a simple trick that can take your cooking to a lovely, and rich, new place.

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