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All About Butter

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All About Butter - Cooking With Butter Photo © Danilo Alfaro

Butter Basics:

Butter is made from the fat of cows' milk. It's not pure fat, however. Only about 80 percent of ordinary butter is fat. The remaining 20 percent is made up of milk solids and water.

Why Butter is Better:

Because of its rich, creamy mouth feel and its sublime flavor, which no other product can come close to matching, butter is by far the preferred fat to use for nearly every preparation in the culinary arts. That includes everything from sauce making to baking.

Cooking with Butter:

When heated, butter develops a magnificent nutty flavor. When butter is used as a cooking medium, such as for sautéeing vegetables, it complements and enhances the flavors to the food that is being cooked in it. It also adds complexity to the flavor of sauces.

The "Smoke Point" of Butter:

While its flavor is highly prized in cooking, there are drawbacks to cooking with butter. For one, it has the lowest low smoke point of any form of fat. The smoke point is the temperature at which a fat starts to smoke when heated.

Here are some examples of smoke points for a few different fats:
Butter: 265° F
Olive Oil: 350° F
Safflower Oil: 450° F
For this reason, when sautéeing, which is a form of cooking that uses very high temperatures, 400°F or hotter, a combination of butter and some other oil, such as safflower, is sometimes used.

Clarified Butter:

Another technique for achieving high-temperature cooking with butter is to use clarified butter. Clarified butter is the pure, golden butterfat from which the milk solids and water have been removed. Because it is the milk solids that burn the fastest, pure butterfat can tolerate much hotter temperatures before reaching its smoke point.

Clarified butter is also preferred for sauce making, such as when making a roux. The reason for this is that the water in ordinary butter can cause a sauce to separate.

Salted Vs. Unsalted Butter:

Most butters available in supermarkets have a small amount of salt added as a preservative. However, if you go through your butter reasonably quickly (like, you'll use a pound of butter in less than a month), you shouldn't have a problem with your butter going bad. If that's the case, go ahead and buy unsalted or "sweet" butter.

Furthermore, unsalted butter should always be used in baking. The reason for this is that salt toughens the glutens in flour. To ensure consistent results with various recipes, it's best to avoid adding any more salt than what the recipe itself calls for.

Baking with Butter:

When preparing pastry and other doughs, butter is slightly more difficult to work with because it is harder than shortening. On the other hand, shortening doesn't have any flavor. Nor does shortening melt in your mouth the way butter does, which is why icings made with shortening can leave a greasy feeling in the mouth.

Remember also that shortening is pure fat, whereas butter is only about 80 percent fat. So if you substitute one for the other, keep in mind that shortening has 20 percent more fat by weight, whereas butter brings additional water to the mixture, which could affect how the recipe turns out.
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