SALT LAKE CITY — I had some on my toast just this morning. Butter is one of the most simplistic foods in your kitchen, but brings such joy and glory to even a humble piece of bread. It is made of just one, sometimes two ingredients, so we don’t often think about the complexities of the butter we spread on our breakfast, melt into sauces, or blend into cakes and cookies. Knowing a few things about this golden darling of the kitchen might just make life better… with butter.
1. Salted versus unsalted
Salted butter tastes oh-so-good slathered on toast, melted over veggies and licked off the tip of the spreader. Most people keep salted butter on hand for eating, and then end up using it in baking. But most recipes for cakes and cookies will call for unsalted butter, as well as salt in the recipe. There are a couple of reasons for this — flavor control, and freshness.
Salt is added to butter as a preservative. As a bonus, salt tastes great! Salt makes those sticks of butter last longer on grocery store shelves, giving the grocers a break from discarding and restocking as often. Unsalted butter has a shorter shelf-life for sure, but you are guaranteed fresher, sweet cream butter, perfect for baking where the fresh flavor will really stand out.
Baking recipes have been developed with just the right amount of salt to leaven the bread or enhance flavors in the cake. I use eight sticks of butter in my double batch of Meringue Buttercream. You can imagine how over-salted this frosting would be if I didn’t use unsalted sticks!
2. Mix oil and butter for sautéing
If you’ve ever thrown a pat of butter into a skillet before sautéing your onions or chicken, you might remember the burn. Butter doesn’t do so well over high heat and can burn quickly, taking your veggies with it.
The milk solids in butter are the culprits. They brown and burn at a lower heat than oil. “But butter tastes so much better than oil,” you say! It certainly does. So the trick is to mix butter and oil for high heat cooking like sautéing in a skillet. I use this trick for my Stuffed French Toast and it works perfectly. Equal parts should do the trick, and you’ll get the best of both worlds, flavor and cooking qualities.
3. Get the crispiest chicken with butter
For the same reason butter isn’t the best for sautéing, it’s ideal for roasted chicken. Those sweet cream milk solids brown and caramelize and make chicken or roasted turkey skin just about sinful.
Take the advice of Julia Child and stuff your whole chicken with lemon and herbs, then slather the outside with softened butter (salted butter is awesome here!). The butter infuses flavor and fat into the meat and crisps the skin to perfection as it roasts. No fancy tricks necessary.
4. Butter adds lift
Cream is churned until it separates into liquids (buttermilk) and solids (butterfat). That butterfat is what makes up most of the butter in your fridge. Some water and milk solids make up the rest. Both the liquid and the butterfat play an important role in leavening your cakes, cookies and pastry.
Many recipes, including my favorite Chocolate Chip Cookies, call for beating the butter with the sugar. Through this processes the sugar granules cut through the butter at high speed, forcing air into the mixture. You’ll see it lighten in color and texture pretty quickly. This air, along with baking powder or baking soda, helps lift the cookies as they bake.
Even when your butter is melted into recipes or melted as it bakes, the liquid content evaporates and creates steam — and the steam forms lovely air pockets and flakiness in your pastry.
5. The counter or the fridge
Storing butter in the fridge makes it impossible to spread on toast, but perfectly cold for blending into pie dough. It is just fine to store butter at room temperature for a few days. Butter will usually keep for about three to four days at room temperature. Try keeping just half a stick in a little covered container on the counter so you are sure to get through it in those few days.
For all other purposes it’s best to keep butter in the refrigerator if you don't have immediate plans for using it — or even in the freezer. Butter can absorb flavors, so cover it and keep it separate from foods with strong smells. Because of the natural oils in butterfat, exposure to air also quickens the time it will take for the butter to turn rancid. Butter will usually keep for about three months in the refrigerator, and even longer in the freezer.