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The other day I was in line in a supermarket’s seafood department endeavoring to buy shrimp, when the guy after me cut in line and ordered king crab legs. As the clerk was bagging the legs the guy asked him “How do I make the butter for these?” I’m sure he was referring to the classic drawn butter commonly served with shellfish. The clerk retorted: “Just melt the butter.” And with that tidbit of erroneous information he was on his way and I proceeded to purchase my shrimp. Had his adherence to proper line etiquette been more commendable, I would have intervened and informed him of the proper method of preparing the butter for his Alaskan delicacy.
Drawn butter is clarified butter. But before we can define clarified butter, we must first understand regular butter. Butter is the semisolid material that results from churning cream. In the US it must be at least 80% milk fat. The remaining 20% is water and milk solids, (proteins and salts). It may be salted or unsalted. The salt, which acts as a preservative, allows for salted butter to last up to a month in your fridge as opposed to two weeks for unsalted butter.
Clarified butter is unsalted butter that has been heated to the point that its water evaporates and the milk solids separate out. The resulting golden fluid is the clarified butter, i.e., pure butter fat. One pound of butter will yield about 12 ounces of clarified butter. To clarify your butter, heat it on low. Some of the proteins will coagulate and produce a foam on the surface which must be skimmed off. Continue to cook until the butter becomes clear and the remaining milk solids congregate on the bottom. Then either ladle or pour out the butter being careful not to include the milk solids. If you “just melt the butter” and fail to remove the milk solids, you will have just that: melted butter, not drawn or clarified butter.
Clarified butter is often preferred to regular butter for sautéing because it has a higher smoke point. This means it can be heated to a higher temperature than regular butter before burning. Those pesky milk solids are miniature kamikaze pilots, diving right to the bottom of your pan and burning themselves up. Without them, clarified butter will store longer as well. But they are not totally evil. They also provide flavor and thus, clarified butter is not as tasty as regular butter.
But this is only one chapter in the butter story. Butter can do so much more than lubricate your crustaceans. Butter is often used to make roux, a cooked mixture of equal parts butter and flour. Roux is used to thicken sauces and soups. No cook worth his salt, (pardon the pun), could make gumbo without roux. (Ok yes, you can use okra but classic gumbo always contains roux). In classic French cuisine, roux was the thickener of choice for a multitude of sauces. Modern sauces are congealed via evaporation from extended heating or by adding in a starch-based thickener such as arrowroot or cornstarch. But if you wish to laugh in the face of fat, favor a more hearty sauce, or simply wish to honor tradition, roux is the way to go.
A delicious preparation employing butter is compound butter. This is simply butter that has been combined with herbs, garlic, shallots, or other flavorings. Simply take a stick or two of butter and allow it to soften to room temperature. Chop up whatever combination of herbs suits your taste, such as rosemary, thyme, and parsley for example. Then mix them into the butter. Take a sheet of plastic wrap and spoon out the butter into a rough shaped log. Then roll the plastic around it. Finally, hold each end of the plastic and twist in opposite directions until the plastic tightens around the butter and forces it into a neat cylindrical shape. Refrigerate it and then slice it to top off your finished steak, pork, lamb, fowl, or fish. You’ll never get that garnish with your dinner on the cardiac ward of your local hospital.
And where would fettuccine Alfredo be without butter? An Alfredo sauce is basically a combination of butter, cream and Parmesan cheese. How much of each? I was afraid you’d ask. I did a search on the Internet and got tired of counting all the permutations. I’d go with four oz., (one stick) of butter, two cups heavy cream, and two cups of Parmesan cheese. Melt the butter in the cream and bring it to a simmer. Incorporate the cheese and season with salt and pepper. Cook your pasta until it is just a minute or two from being done and then finish it in the sauce.
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