It’s a trope, but it’s also true: Butter makes everything better. French pastries would just be sad crackers without it. Leave it out and silky pan sauces become nothing but meat juice.
While a knob of butter can add richness and depth to nearly everything it touches, it can also go horribly, horribly wrong (if you’ve ever tried to sear a steak in butter, you know what we’re talking about: Hello smoke alarms and bitter flavor). From using salted when unsalted will do, to adding it too quickly, there are a lot of common mistakes people make when cooking with butter.
Here’s how to avoid them all.
1. Using the wrong temperature butter.
Butter is solid at room temperature and liquid when heated. Baked good recipes that call for creaming butter and sugar should be made with room-temperature, completely softened butter—it’s easier to incorporate the two ingredients. But melt it, and the sugar crystals can’t do their job of slicing through the fat, creating air pockets that give the finished product “lift.” In other words: Melted butter will result in a flat, super chewy cookie, while softened butter makes for a fluffier, softer cookie. Making pie dough? Be sure the butter is very cold.
This is imperative because too-soft butter won’t form the tiny pea-sized “crumbs” in the dough that eventually translate to flaky crust. As for recipes that call for melted butter and eggs, like pancakes, it’s best to let it cool slightly before combining it with the other ingredients. Hot melted butter will partially cook the eggs, turning your batter into sweet scrambled eggs.
2. Making unsanctioned butter swaps.
Because it has a similar consistency to butter, it can be tempting to plug in coconut oil anywhere butter is called for. Proceed at your own risk! Baking is as much a science as it is an art, and the success of any given recipe depends on the specific chemical reactions between ingredients. Stick with recipes that have tested the variables. (The same rules apply for other oils, like vegetable and olive oil). When it comes to sautéeing and stove-top cooking, as in the case of, say, fried eggs, it’s your preference. We like using virgin olive oil instead of butter, because, again, it doesn’t burn as quickly.
3. Adding it too soon when searing.
The reason butter is so tasty is also the reason it’s not ideal for high-heat cooking: The milk solids that give it a full, rounded flavor burn more quickly than fats like canola, vegetable, or virgin olive oil.
But there’s a way to beat the system: Baste seared meats, seafood, and veggies in butter when they’re almost done cooking. The butter will turn fragrant and nutty, while helping turn the ingredient a beautiful golden brown.
Alternatively, you can give protein like steak or chicken a hard sear with ghee, which is clarified butter (meaning it contains no milk solids). And one more secret tip from the test kitchen: You can sear in butter if you pack as much of your ingredient into the pan as possible, nestling it close together. While we typically advocate against crowding, covering the pan’s surface with meat—like skin-on chicken, for example—ensures that the butter won’t darken and burn as quickly.
Don't burn that butter. Avoid even more common cooking mistakes.
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