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Preserving Your Herb Harvest: Sage

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.

 

Browned Sage Butter
About 1 pound of herb butter

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.

Comments

Shawn Augustine's picture

Oh my gosh, I feel like I was reading my own words with this post!!! I too recently found Crispy Sage in Brown Butter!! I have a huge Sage bush and was talking with my husband how I could make this and freeze it, so I was THRILLED to find your post!! Last year we did a bunch of compound butters as well...love using that in the dead of winter! Thank you so much for sharing! You made my day! :) I hope it's okay, I am going to share this post on my Facebook page for my blog....
meg's picture

Yes, please share! Compound butters are a really rewarding way to keep herbs for winter use. A tablespoon of this stuff as a finishing condiment for anything from polenta to steak to pasta is fabulous.
Becky P's picture

Is it bad form to admit to drooling on my keyboard? This sounds fabulous! I started seriously growing herbs last spring and have been looking for different ways to use and preserve them. I have two sage bushes that will start losing their leaves soon, so this was perfect timing.
Becky P's picture

I forgot to ask for the approximate volume of an ounce of fresh sage. I don't have a scale yet. Thanks!
meg's picture

It's really not crucial to be exact with this method--you can use as little as 1/2 cup packed sage leaves or as much as 2 cups packed. I think more is better, because you really get the flavor and can use a little bit of butter to make a big statement. We froze our sage butter and have been using it all year as a topper for toast, grilled meat, creamy soups, etc. It's got such a wonderful flavor. Glad the article was of help.
Becky P's picture

Can other herbs can be preserved this way? Besides sage, I have thyme, oregano, marjoram, chives, garlic chives and parsley growing right now. Thanks so much for your response.
meg's picture

I don't see why not. Sage is especially lovely with browned butter, but I can see oregano, chives, and garlic chives in browned butter as well. Some of the more woody herbs (such as rosemary and thyme) might be a little tough in an herb butter unless very, very finely minced. Also, as much as I love parsley in everything from chicken soup to salads, I don't necessarily think it would improve butter all on its own. However, there's something called Maître d'Hôtel Butter, which contains minced parsley and lemon juice (I would add the zest, too). You could easily make this butter and freeze it.
Becky P's picture

That sounds wonderful. Thanks for all the great ideas! So glad I found the forum. :)
mamaskitchen's picture

My mom & pop love making rosemary butter, between their overabundance in the backyard and need for flavorful dinners, finely chopped it works fine! (Oh man a bit with corn, super tasty!) Just have fun with it and experiment, worst that happens you loose a bit of butter, worse things have happened.
meg's picture

That sounds really delicious! Flavored butters really are a secret weapon in the kitchen. They're a great way to add a lot of flavor with very little effort.
Becky P's picture

I'm was just about to make this when I realized that all I have in the house is salted butter. Will it make a difference in this recipe if I use salted butter?
meg's picture

Don't worry about it. You can certainly use salted butter to make this. The only thing you might want to do is label any of the butter that you freeze with "salted." That way, when you go to use it, you can alter the salt content of your recipe or dish accordingly. I should probably not even say this, but I almost exclusively buy salted butter--it's what I use on my toast, and I've found that it doesn't hurt the vast majority of recipes. I actually prefer it for many baking recipes, as they can be too sweet without some extra salt.
Becky P's picture

Thanks, Meg. I made the browned sage butter last night and I think we're really going to enjoy it. It actually did taste salty when I sampled it and my husband said the same. How funny that I never noticed it before. Perhaps browning the butter concentrated the flavor. I'll be sure to add less salt to anything I use it in. I always buy salted butter in a 4 lb. package from Costco because it's less expensive that way. There's no high blood pressure in our house so we enjoy our salt. Now that the browned sage butter is in the freezer, I'm thinking that I'll make some chive butter, and when my parsley gets a little bigger, the Maître d'Hôtel Butter sounds good. What combination of butter and herbs would you put together for pasta? Keeping herb butter on hand is such a great idea that I'd love to have something ready for a quick pasta side dish. Do you have a favorite butter blend?
meg's picture

For pasta, I really love rosemary, thyme, oregano, and parsley. You might even add some black pepper and grated parmesan to that butter. We also buy our butter in bulk at Costco--as much as I love European-style butter, for someone who bakes a lot, it only makes sense to buy butter in a larger quantity!
Becky P's picture

The recipe didn't say whether or not to stir when browning the butter. I started to stir but then it seemed like stirring would stop the layer of milk solids from separating, so I stopped. The milk solids made a pretty firm layer at the top and didn't seem to want to sink to the bottom, so I gently broke them up with a spoon at the end and everything did what it was supposed to do (I think). Thanks for the warning about the foaming sage. It would have really startled me and made a huge mess had I not been prepared.
meg's picture

Oh shoot! You're right. When I brown butter, I don't stir until the very end, since the milk solids sink to the bottom and brown, which is what gives the butter its wonderful flavor. Sometimes, the foam on top prevents me from being able to see what's going on underneath, in which case I move the foam to the side to see if the solids are browning. You may even think about using a metal spatula next time to really scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the skillet (that's where all the flavor is!).
Becky P's picture

Thank you! I was a little unsure about the stirring so I did what seemed right for the recipe. Glad I chose correctly. Thanks for the herb suggestions. I can't stand the boxed pasta but it's nice to have something quick on hand.
Nancy's picture

I was wondering what you thought about adding a bit of lemon zest? I'm about to make this sage butter but would like you advice first before proceeding. Thanks a heap!
meg's picture

Adding some lemon zest would be just fine, and it sounds like a lovely addition! I would add it after the butter has cooled slightly so it doesn't "fry" the lemon zest. Happy cooking!

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