How To Make Beurre Noisette, aka Brown Butter, And What It Goes With Exceptionally Well

Question: when’s a bit of butter even betterer than a bit of butter?

Answer: when it’s a bit nutty as well as buttery….

I have a natural proclivity to burn things… so it was a long time ago that I discovered that slightly burning butter isn’t necessarily the disaster you might expect… in fact, sometimes it’s even an improvement. It develops a rich, nutty sort of taste.

But lately I find that my old discovery has been taken up by the crowd and is now a sort of new-fangled idea. Heston Blumenthal (no less) uses it with chicken stock to beef [sic] up his broccoli – it’s always been good (especially with a little thick balsamic vinegar) on asparagus, especially roast asparagus.

A standard ingredient of croissants, financiers and madeleines, it’s now appearing in ice cream and in cheesecake; on baked eggs and pasta; the more classic, traditional use has always been on fish, and in particular on lemon sole, but other fish such as sea bass are getting the treatment.

It’s also good drizzled over Wiener Schnitzel, or sole meuniere, or any other meat or fish dish which involves coating in breadcrumbs or dredging in seasoned flour. Why? It’s because most of the water content of the butter (the worse the quality of the butter the more water it contains) has been steamed off, and the remaining purer fat gives a crisper texture to the starch and meat caramel which forms the crust of these dishes.

Try it with pork steaks, or over gnocchi, and crispy fried sage.

It’s very good with scallops and lemon.

Or on a Dutch Baby (ever heard of that?). It’s a cross between a custard, a crepe and a pancake.

Because ‘noisette’ means ‘hazelnut’ it’s not surprising that the butter is further improved by the addition of a few chopped hazelnuts, but other nuts, walnuts and pecans for example, work well too. Mix in some pine nuts, and spoon over green beans.

Because of the rich depth of the taste, beurre noisette also teams up well with a little lemon juice which cuts across the richness.

George Barson at Kitty Fisher’s restaurant in London adds Marmite to his beurre noisette. He thinks beurre noisette can be toffee-ishly sweet, and the Marmite brings it back to being savoury. He brushes it over all kinds of grilled red meat.

Beurre Noisette is not difficult to achieve… you just have to heat up some butter and try not to burn it completely.

Here is the method for making beurre noisette in a bit more detail:

  1. You heat up, ideally unsalted, butter in a small saucepan over a medium heat. You need a light-coloured pan, so that you can easily see the colour of the butter changing. You need a heavy-bottomed, good quality saucepan which will distribute the heat slowly and evenly. If you use a thin-based pan some of the butter will begin to burn before  all the milk solids have transformed themselves into their desired rich brown hazelnut colour. For the same reason (the control of the heating process) it’s best to start with room temperature butter.
  2. The slow, controlled heat will separate the butterfat from the milk solids and the water content of the butter will come off as steam. It’s the milk solids which naturally sink to the bottom of the pan and then turn gold which give the toasty flavour.
  3. Don’t get impatient – it can take anything up to half an hour. The original volume will have reduced to about a quarter. Reduce the heat and watch it like a hawk.
  4. As soon as brown flecks start to appear it’s done. Take it off the heat immediately. Leave to cool. It will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.
brown butter recipe
You can see the milk solids starting to burn.

Clarified butter

If you separate out these deep-tasting solids from the clear butterfat, the remaining butter is known as clarified butter, or in Indian and south Asian cooking as ghee, and in the Middle East as samna.  If you want to buy good quality, organic ghee, go to the Fushi website.

Clarified butter is also used extensively in Venetian cooking. As Mina Holland describes, in The Edible Atlas: Around the World in Thirty-Nine Cuisines:

“Instead of olive oil, Venetians and other northerners such as the Milanese historically used clarified butter, a seemingly small difference that makes for some significant variation in cuisines. The use of clarified butter, for example, accounts for Veneto’s creamy risottos with their soup-like consistency. Risi e bisi (which translates to rice and peas, and also contains mint) is a local favourite that, from the fifteenth century onwards, was made to honour St Mark’s Day.”

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