Pearls of Wisdom: All About Butter

All about butter Once upon a time, I thought it was okay to purchase "buy-one-get-one-free" off-brand butter. It costed a considerable amount less than its competitors, and seriously, how different from the big names could it really be? (Answer: very.) Turns out there was lot about butter I didn't know. Unfortunately I learned the hard way, and after a few less-than-stellar baking experiences discovered that you really do get what you pay for. If only someone had told me sooner! So to spare you the same grief,

Here are a few things every cook should know ABOUT BUTTER:

1. Not all butter is created equal: Butter is primarily composed of milk fats and water. Cheap butter contains more water and less fat than higher-end brands, creating an inferior product capable of altering an otherwise decent recipe. High quality, high fat butter yields tender baked goods, crisp pastries, and creamy icings. I am a firm believer that good ingredients equal good results, and great ingredients equal great results; sometimes it is worth paying the extra couple of dollars if you strive for the very best.

2. Salted or unsalted, that is the question: My mother used salted butter, so for a while I used salted butter, too. (Mom knows best, right!) Thank goodness my wise friend Amelia showed me the low-sodium light. Salt is often added to butter to cover up inferior taste and to increase its shelf life. The amount added can vary substantially from brand to brand, so you never know what you're going to get from stick to stick. On the flip side, unsalted "sweet" butter has a delicate, nutty flavor, and because it contains no added salt, you can control the amount that goes into your recipes.

3. Fridge, freezer, or counter top: I forgot to buy butter once only to realize it midway through a recipe; bystanders would have thought it was literally the end of the world. In true Scarlett fashion, I vowed to never run out of butter again! Well-wrapped unsalted butter keeps in the refrigerator for about three months, or up to six months in the freezer if need be. I always keep some butter at room temperature (which keeps for a minimum of 3-4 days) for bagels and such; this Anthropologie butter dish is perfect because it holds just half a stick—turnover is quick so I never have to worry about it going bad.

4. Cooking with butter: Butter has a low smoke point, which basically means it scorches at a lower temperature than say, peanut oil. This can be a good thing if you are making a simple sauce ("brown butter" makes everything better!), but bad if you are cooking foods on high heat. If you want to pan-fry foods in butter, it is best to clarify it first. Clarified butter is the process of removing the milk solids (which are the reason butter burns) by melting it over low heat, causing the solids and fat to separate. The solids are discarded, and you are left with pure butter fat which can be heated to a much higher temp.

5. Baking with butter: Is it just me, or am I the only one that starts a recipe only to realize once it's too late that it calls for softened butter? Such a bummer! Whatever you do, try to avoid the microwave, because it will cause uneven heating throughout. If a recipe calls for softened butter, leave it at room temperature for several hours or overnight. It should be cool (not melted or greasy) and hold a firm impression when poked with your finger. If the microwave is your only option, try this tip: cut the butter into smaller pieces and heat on medium power, in 30 second increments, until it is malleable.

Dixie Caviar recommends: Land O' Lakes (unsalted) for all-purpose use, Plugra European-style (unsalted) for baking, and Kate's Homemade Butter (with sea salt) for toast and bagels.

Image source: Fabulous Foods