From first course to last, this basic ingredient always has a place in the back of the house
Few ingredients are as esteemed, versatile or delicious as butter.
Chefs revere it for countless reasons, all of them edible. Butter lends unmistakable body, luster and richness to numerous sauces. Folded into layers of dough, chilled butter puffs pastry to towering heights. Melted and browned, butter provides a distinctive fragrance and deep, nutty taste, while flavored butter is the crowning glory for preparations from steaks and seafood to breads and biscuits.
Culinary flirtations with olive oil and consumer interest in low-fat fare have not lessened its authority: Butter still stands pat in the minds of diners. And regardless of which way the collective health-consciousness pendulum swings, butter’s position in foodservice is nearly unshakeable. But like the times, the roles this kitchen ace plays change.
“Now that chefs have been exposed to all kinds of cooking—Mediterranean, Asian, Latin American—and not just French, which is all about butter, you see those influences on menus regardless of the kind of food you are cooking,” says Cindy Wolf, executive chef at Charleston in Baltimore. “But there are certain things I will always use butter for simply because it’s the best ingredient for that particular application.”
Instead of being used in multiple menu offerings, butter is more apt to be applied in ways that allow its attributes to shine. Increasingly, chefs subscribe to the minimalist philosophy, applying butter judiciously to recipes, putting into play a less-is-more cooking mode.
As chefs explore and create their own styles, butter is called on to act as a flavor component, an ingredient to build complexity in a dish rather than as a vehicle for cooking it.
Compound butters, classic components of Continental cuisine, are expanding beyond garlic-and-herb combinations to include citrus juices such as blood orange or Key lime, chiles such as chipotle or ancho and aromatics that include kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass and lavender.
Jeff Tunks, chef-owner of DC Coast in Washington, D.C., skillfully elevates flavors with just a little butter. Saffron-tomato butter accents ahi tuna ravioli with sautéed spinach while chipotle-lime compound butter gives zip to grilled rib-eye steak.
The menu at Charleston is filled with references to Southern cuisine, in dishes such as Gulf shrimp with andouille sausage, tasso ham and creamy stone-ground grits, and pan-roasted rockfish with baby spinach and caramelized portobello and shiitake mushrooms. Wolf says her French training and experience working with an Argentine chef also influence the menu.
“Classic empanadas use lard. But I now use butter [for the crust], especially when the filling might be goat cheese. The flavor and mouthfeel of butter better suit the ingredients,” she says. “It all comes down to understanding food and what you are trying to achieve.”
For Chefs Frank Randazzo and Andrea Curto-Randazzo, who opened Talula in Miami earlier this year, their self-described creative American cuisine reflects the locale, availability of regional ingredients, their Italian heritage and classical French training.
“I’m not afraid to use butter, but I don’t abuse it,” says Curto-Randazzo. “People are health-conscious, so we have other ways to finish a dish—such as vinaigrettes and broths. And I don’t sauté with butter.”
The husband-and-wife team reaches for butter when they know it best accomplishes their goal: combining and balancing contrasting ingredients. To finish a dish of grilled Atlantic salmon paired with asparagus and bacon-and-creamer-potato hash, they use Dijon-garlic vinaigrette. But the flavors of pan-roasted halibut, corn-pecan salsa and black-bean purée harmonize with orange-infused beurre blanc. Butter infused with lemongrass rounds out crispy-skin yellowtail snapper served with sweet-potato-wild mushroom risotto and wilted arugula.
“Let’s face it,” she says. “Butter is a beautiful thing.”
While butter has year-round application, Charleston’s Wolf believes it also has seasonal associations. “You might not think of butter sauce as light but when it’s paired with fish just enough to highlight the flavors, it can be more appropriate for summer.”
When butter is slowly heated until it turns tawny brown, its bolder flavor is ready to go one-on-one with robust pairings. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, sage-infused brown butter is a natural for cool-weather dishes such as pumpkin gnocchi with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and crisp prosciutto. Says Tracey Hopkins, chef with New York City-based Restaurant Associates, which manages foodservice at the museum: “Something like brown butter has so much flavor. You want other ingredients to be in harmony, not competing against each other.”
At Boston’s Hamersley Bistro, Chef-owner Gordon Hamersley uses butter to fast-track flavor. In one application, anchovies are mashed with butter and lemon then spread over leek-wrapped, baked salmon. For another dish, smoked-shrimp butter is the delightfully outspoken topping for barbecued bluefish.
Mark Salter, executive chef at The Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels, Md., has in his repertoire many saucing options—broth, jus, vinaigrette and butter among them. Palate and instinct are guides as he chooses the right complement for his dishes. For instance, bacon-balsamic sauce accompanies seared scallops with truffled leeks. But for leek-and-Gruyère strudel on spinach, he reaches for rosemary butter.
“I use compound butters because you can concentrate flavors, mix them into butter and get incredible results,” Salter says.
He might reduce lobster stock or citrus juice and stir it into softened, unsalted butter. The mixture is then formed into a log, refrigerated and sliced to order for grilled or sautéed seafood. Also in his repertoire is sun-dried tomato butter that is sliced and stirred into a thin beurre blanc that naps warm braised lobster-and-fennel gnocchi.
Compound butters are useful in other ways, he says. Throughout winter, Salter serves a mushroom-and-chestnut tart. Before it goes in the oven, it is topped with a pat of parsley-and-chive butter.
“It slowly melts into the tart as it cooks. This gives you more control; melted butter spooned over would just float on top,” Salter says. “Butter doesn’t have to be heavy—it all depends on how you use it.”
Maître d’Hôtel Butter