As a somewhat seasoned baker, I can look back on the past five years and say with great certainty that my Achilles heel, my physical albatross, has been pie dough. Many an attempt at pie-making...
There are lots of little amazing discoveries you make when you cook for a living.
Like how adding a little vinegar to pie dough makes for a flakier crust.
Or how to mince a clove of garlic most efficiently.
Or that a little lemon juice makes almost everything better.
Browned butter was a similar revelation for me. I’m sure I browned butter unintentionally at some point. Living in rented apartments with untrustworthy, ancient stoves will do that. You think you’re just sweating a shallot when you look over and your butter has scorched and is now a black film on the bottom of your skillet.
But when I learned to brown butter intentionally, now that was a day to remember. Cooking with butter is marvelous to begin with. Few people do it nowadays, preferring to slosh extra virgin olive oil on everything (a note: do not use evoo at a high heat—a.k.a. above 325 degrees. Use a fairly tasteless oil with a high flash point). I often do the same, but I am never without a stick of butter. It elevates food in a way that olive oil doesn’t.
And browned butter? Browned butter becomes less of a salve for vegetables and more of an actual ingredient with incredibly rich flavor. The aroma of browned butter alone is enough to make me salivate wildly, and the flavor is marvelous. Something like toasted hazelnuts and your deepest desires. That’s right.
Since making my discovery, I’ve used browned butter in everything from sautéed scallops to scones. It adds a je ne sais quoi to food that acts like a hook, gently pulling you back for seconds and thirds. Of course, as with any food, you can become jaded when it comes to browned butter. Keep it close to you and use it when you need to impress, or just when you need to impress upon yourself how delicious it is.
My latest use for it came to me as I fondly remembered a dish of sweet potato gnocchi with browned butter and fried sage. Sage and browned butter are perfect companions. Then, I thought about the bumper-crop of sage we have right now. One of our methods for preserving herbs for the winter is in compound butters. A thin pat of basil butter in February is magical. I then made the connection between browned butter, sage, and compound butter.
This recipe will take you through worlds of discomfort if you have never made browned butter before. It’s really not bad at all. You just need to chill out and go with it. I’ve done my best in the recipe to lead you through it with thorough explanation. Just remember, your nose will tell you when it’s done. When you can smell a rich, nutty aroma filling your kitchen, your butter is probably done.
Also, on my stovetop, medium heat is perfect for this. However, if you have a newer stove or a better stove or even just a different stove, medium heat may be too hot. You don’t want your butter to boil, just melt and slowly brown. This may mean that you need to use medium-low heat. Use discretion and know your stovetop.
Another note: use a skillet that is larger than you think necessary. When you add the chopped sage leaves, the moisture in them will cause the butter to foam violently, and if your pan is too small, you might have an overflow. But really, there’s nothing to fear here. And your reward will be great.
In a large, shallow skillet, melt over medium heat:
1 pound unsalted butter
At first, the melted butter will “foam.” That foam is actually milk solids. If you were making clarified butter, you would skim this off the top. But since, you’re making browned butter, you want to leave it alone. Next, the butter will start to bubble. Then, you’ll start to hear a stirring in the depths of the butter—a slight hissing punctuated by popping and crackling sounds.
Slowly, the white milk solids will start to sink to the bottom of the pan. Fairly soon thereafter, you should start to smell a fragrant, hazelnutty odor, and if you look into the pan, you should see the milk solids browning on the bottom. At this point, drop in all at once:
1 ounce fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
The butter will foam and hiss tremendously. If you have used a deep skillet, it should not overflow. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, and pour into a medium bowl, being sure to scrape the browned milk solids from the bottom of the pan. This is where the flavor is.
Let the butter come to room temperature, and refrigerate briefly, until it is of a spreadable consistency. To make sure the browned bits and sage leaves are incorporated throughout the butter (they tend to sink to the bottom in the cooling process), scrape the butter into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Whip on medium speed until fluffy and well combined.
Have two sheets of wax paper ready. Divide the whipped butter onto the wax paper (8 ounces on each sheet) and roll tightly into a cylinder. Place the butter rolls in a labeled plastic freezer bag, and freeze.
These keep indefinitely. When you need to use some, simply slice off the amount you will need, and thaw to room temperature.