You could say it was brown butter that made Julia Child fall in love with France. Upon arriving in the port of Le Havre with her husband, Paul, in the fall of 1948, he whisked her off to La Couronne, a restaurant in the ancient Norman city of Rouen. Their celebratory lunch featured a main course of sole meunière. From the first perfectly cooked bite of delicate fish bathed in a sauce of fresh lemon and sizzling brown butter, she was hooked.
Brown butter, or beurre noisette, literally translates to hazelnut butter, which is an apt description for its nutty flavor. Though brown butter is easy to make, timing is everything. It doesn’t take long for butter to cook and brown, so it’s important to pay attention and engage all your senses to prevent the butter from burning. You’ll be able to see, hear, and smell when your brown butter is ready.
WATCH: Start by heating pieces of unsalted butter over low heat until completely melted. Increase the heat, and bring the butter to a gentle boil. As the butter cooks, it will turn a toasty golden brown. That’s one sign that the butter is done.
LISTEN: As the butter boils and the water in the butter begins to evaporate, it will start to hiss and spit. When the water boils away, the sound will die down, and the milk solids in the butter will start to brown.
SMELL: As the milk solids start to caramelize, the butter will develop an intoxicating sweet and nutty aroma.
When the butter has reached a beautiful caramel color, remove the pan from the heat, and immediately pour the butter into a heatproof bowl. You want to stop the cooking process quickly to prevent the butter from burning. At this point, you can use it immediately or refrigerate it until firm.
While brown butter plays an important role in myriad classic French recipes, you don’t need to stop there. Brown butter can enhance the flavors of many dishes, including a springtime pasta with peas and mint. It also weaves magic in desserts, intensifying the flavors in an almond Bundt cake and pecan-studded shortbread.
Once you master this simple technique, you’ll defnitely score major brown(ie) points with the nutty, complex flavor of beurre noisette.
Brown Butter Tips
- Use unsalted butter. The browned milk solids wrap themselves around the salt particles in salted butter, making it hard to see when the butter is adequately browned. Unsalted butter is the best choice when making brown butter.
- Cut the butter into tablespoon-size pieces to speed up the melting process.
- Cook the butter in a light-colored pan, such as a stainless-steel or enamel-lined saucepan, to better gauge how quickly the milk solids are browning.
- Make sure the butter is completely melted before it starts to boil to prevent the milk solids from browning too quickly before all the water in the butter boils away.
- Stir or whisk the butter continuously as it browns to prevent the milk solids from sticking to the bottom of the pan.
A Melted Butter Glossary
- Beurre noisette This is the French name for brown butter, made by melting unsalted butter, cooking it gently to evaporate the water and then over increasing heat to encourage the milk proteins floating on top or sunken to the bottom of the pan to develop a golden-brown color and nutty flavor and aroma. Favorite companions include eggs, pastas, fish, cookies, and cakes.
- Beurre noir Black butter takes brown butter to the very edge, just short of burning. Beurre noir is often paired with sweetbreads, as well as with fish and seafood dishes, including skate, in French cuisine. Chefs often add lemon juice or vinegar to the pan to flavor the butter and stop the browning.
- Burro marrone Italian for brown butter. Cooks in Italy love brown butter, most famously in the beloved, brilliant dish of ravioli or pasta with brown butter and fresh sage.
- Clarified butter This culinary treasure is made by stopping short of browning the milk solids. Unsalted butter is melted and then skimmed or strained to remove any traces of milk solids floating on the top or adhering to the bottom of the pan in which the butter was melted. Chefs and cooks use it to provide butter’s rich flavor to ingredients cooked at higher temperatures than whole butter can endure.
- Drawn butter Essentially melted butter, made as an accompaniment for steamed or boiled seafood. This luscious sauce is simplicity itself. Unsalted butter is melted and sometimes mixed with fresh lemon juice.
- Ghee A treasured ingredient in South Asian cuisines, ghee is cow’s milk butter melted and then slowly simmered to develop its toasty flavor and aroma. The resulting product remains shelf stable in tropical heat and is revered in Hindi kitchens for use in religious ceremonies as well as for cooking and seasoning food.
- Samneh The same process used to make ghee is used by cooks in the Arab world to make samneh. These two clarified butters share the process of melting unsalted butter, cooking off the water, and then simmering it for an extended time, up to 20 minutes, to allow for fuller but gentle browning and a rich, toasty flavor. Samneh is cooled and strained so that the finished product has no browned bits, though it retains a toasty, nutty flavor. Cooks throughout the Arab world use samneh in pastries and sweets, including baklava, as well as in savory cooking, including fried halloumi, and with rice and other grains.