FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Mark R. Vogel
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.