If you’ve perused some of my recipes or other recipes around the internet, you may have noticed a recipe calling to brown the butter. Once I discovered brown butter, I started adding it to everything! It’s such a simple way to add more depth of flavor to your cookies, breads, scones, and even to savory dishes! But what does that mean, and what is brown butter, anyway? In this post I’ll go over what brown butter is, why you should be making it, and how to make it! But in order to understand what brown butter is, we first need to understand what butter is.
What is butter?
Butter is officially defined by 21 U.S. Code § 321a as “made exclusively from milk or cream, or both, with or without common salt, and with or without additional coloring matter, and containing not less than 80 per centum by weight of milk fat” Being a product of milk, butter contains two milk proteins: casein and whey. It also contains a trace amount of sugar due to the naturally occurring lactose in milk. These components are important, because they allow the maillard reaction to occur!
What is the maillard reaction?
The maillard (my-ard) reaction is the most delicious chemical reaction! It is a chemical reaction involving amino acids from proteins and reducing sugars. Basically, when the amino acids and sugars interact and are put in heat, the end result is the browning of food. This is why your cookies, breads, and all your baked goods brown as they are baked. The maillard reaction begins to take place around 285°F (140°C), and speeds up as the temperature increases.
You see this process all the time and may refer to it as “caramelization”, but caramelization and the maillard reaction are two different processes. Caramelization is the browning of only one ingredient, sugar, under heat. With your standard table sugar, this happens at 340°F (170°C). However, the maillard reaction and caramelization are not mutually exclusive, and can both take place at the same time.
It’s a little confusing, but they are different processes! When you caramelize sugar, it is undergoing caramelization, not the maillard reaction. However, when you make a caramel sauce which involves butter and cream, your sauce is undergoing both the maillard reaction and caramelization. This is because there are proteins in the butter and cream that interact with the sugar in your sauce!
The maillard reaction and brown butter
Butter has two milk proteins in it, casein and whey. And while it only has trace amounts of lactose, those trace amounts are what allow brown butter to happen. By heating up the butter and allowing it to cook for an extended period of time, the lactose and the milk proteins are able to interact under the heat and undergo the maillard reaction, yielding us with beautiful brown butter. However, it is important to take note of the moisture that leaves during the cooking process. Remember how butter was defined as having a fat content of at least 80%? Well, the remaining percent is mostly water content. That water content evaporates as a result of cooking the butter. So if you are using brown butter, just be aware that 15-20% of your butter weight will evaporate.
Why do we want the maillard reaction?
Okay, so the maillard reaction happens, but why do we want it to happen? Well, I mentioned it was the most delicious chemical reaction for a reason! When the maillard reaction occurs, it also creates a multitude of new flavor compounds. Brown butter is most often described as having a toffee, nutty like flavor. When you add brown butter to your baked goods, you are adding more complex flavors to them, taking your desserts from delicious to irresistibly delicious.
How can I use brown butter?
The best way to use brown butter is to use recipes that have been developed around using them! After all, baking is a (delicious) science. As I mentioned above, when you brown butter, you are removing moisture from the butter which can dry out your baked goods. If a recipe calls for creaming the butter and sugar, you will not be able to cream the browned butter to get the same effect that you get from regular butter. If your recipe calls for melted butter, brown that amount of butter and add back in water the amount that you lost. It seems a little counterintuitive, but you still have all that brown butter flavor, just with a little added moisture!
How do I make brown butter?
The process is super easy and only requires 1 ingredient: butter!
What you need:
- Heat safe rubber spatula
Using either salted or unsalted butter, place the butter in a saucepan set over medium heat. Watch the butter closely, and every so often give the mixture a swirl. The butter will begin to foam, and that is when you will want to stir it more often. Continue stirring the butter until it turns into an amber-brown color, and you can see little brown specks in the butter (those are your toasted milk solids!). Take the mixture off the heat and allow to cool down a bit before using. Make sure you scrape all those brown specks into your recipe, that’s the good stuff! And there you have it, brown butter!
Summary: So what is brown butter?
In summary / TL;DR: What is brown butter? Brown butter is butter that has been heated past the point of just melted butter. Doing so allows the proteins and sugar to undergo the maillard reaction, which in the case of brown butter, is the browning or toasting of the milk solids. This results in a delicious and complex toffee-like nutty flavor, perfect for using in baked goods, or in your favorite savory dish!