When it comes to making sauces, the type of butter you use can have a subtle but significant impact on the flavor of your sauce. The cream used to mass-produce American butters is combined and pasteurized, giving it a uniform and indistinct flavor. Mass-produced French butters also start with combined creams and pasteurization, but then have microbes add to provide an acidic taste. Artisanal or farmhouse butters, on the other hand, each have a distinct taste. These individual flavors come from both the cows’ diets and – in the case of French and European-style butters – the microbial strains found in each.
When you experiment with different kinds of butter to make sauces, you can bring out the unique flavors of each. Similarly, beurre noisette and beurre noir can impart a nuttiness and intense flavor that is absent from traditional butter.
Who hasn’t dabbed a pat of butter onto a baked potato, a bowl of pasta, or a serving of vegetables? And popcorn would taste like Styrofoam without a drizzle of butter and a sprinkling of salt.
Butter is at least 80% fat, with water droplets interspersed. When you melt butter, the water separates from the butterfat and – because water is heavier than fat – slips to the bottom.
Beurre noisette, or hazel butter, gets its full flavor and distinctive light brown coloring by heating the butter to 250 °F (121 °C), at which point the water has vaporized and the remaining molecules of sugar and protein react to form a different aroma and flavor. Unlike sauces containing water, wine, or other liquids, beurre noisette won’t make breaded food soggy, so it’s perfect for sautéing.
To make beurre noisette, use a heavy saucepan to melt butter over medium heat. The water will have vaporized when the volume of butter is reduced by about a quarter. Look for white specks at the bottom of the pan, and then turn down the heat. When the specks turn light brown, remove the pan from the heat and place in a cool bath. Once it has cooled slightly, add the juice of one lemon for every four ounces of butter. The result? A temporarily emulsified flavorful fish or meat sauce.
Beurre noir, or black butter, is prepared in the same way as beurre noisette, except it heated to a much deeper brown color. Instead of adding lemon juice once the butter has cooled slightly, add a sherry or balsamic vinegar reduction.
Both beurre noisette and beurre noir (without the lemon juice or vinegar) can add a distinctive nutty flavor to baked goods.
Learn about butter-based sauces, such as beurre blanc > Go to butter sauces
Explore egg-emulsified butter sauces, such as Hollandaise > Go to egg sauces
Discover great tips for using butter in sauces > Go to tips
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