Butter is awesome. Browned butter is out of this world.
What makes browned butter so great is the same thing that makes other browned food so tasty: the Maillard reaction, in which proteins brown when heated to around 350 degrees F and as a result change their chemical structure into something that our taste buds think is just wonderful.
Browning butter is easy to do; you just need to pay attention when doing it, because it happens very quickly and if left too long it can burn. It helps to understand that butter mainly contains three substances: water, fat, and milk proteins. When we heat butter, we it goes through four stages:
- At around 100 degrees, the butter melts.
- At around 212 degrees, the water boils off: the melted butter will start to bubble, then once the water is gone, the bubbling stops.
- At around 350 degrees, the milk proteins will brown. You will notice two effects of this: the liquid butter will turn tan, then (if left long enough) brown; and some of the proteins will separate out into brown particles and settle to the bottom.
- Eventually the milk proteins will burn, turning dark brown, then black.
The sweet spot for browned butter is when the liquid has turned tan and the the solidified milk proteins are still light brown.
It helps to use a light-colored saucepan to do this so you can clearly see the colors as it browns.
- Unsalted butter, cut into 1-tablespoon slices
Place the butter into a saucepan, over low heat.
When the butter is melted, begin stirring. The butter will start to bubble and sizzle, then the bubbling will eventually subside.
Keep stirring after the bubbling stops, watching the color of the butter closely.
When the liquid turns tan and light-brown particles start appearing, remove the pan from heat. How long to wait is up to you; the darker it is, the more flavor it has, but you risk picking up some “burnt” flavors if you wait too long. Once you’ve browned butter a few times, you’ll get some intuition for how long to wait. And using low heat cooks the butter more slowly so it’s a bit easier to pick the right point. If possible, immediately pour the butter into a heat-proof container so that it stops cooking via residual heat in the pan.
If desired, strain the butter to remove milk protein particles. This is a low-payoff step: most of the particles are too small to strain out. Besides, they add more flavor to the butter.