Butter has to be one of the hardest-working ingredients in the Western larder. It makes cakes tender and sauces silken. It's a splendid spread all by itself. It's a reliable fat for pan-frying foods that cook quickly. But heat it too long, and its milk proteins and salts will start to burn.
Some call that brown butter. I call it black magic.
Plain butter -- well, that's Doris Day on a warm, sunny afternoon. But cooking with brown butter is like listening to Billie Holiday; it adds depth, flavor, mystery and just a shade of burn.
I have been using brown-butter variations to sauce fish and vegetables for years. A hazelnutty brown-butter sauce -- beurre noisette in French -- goes very well with soft-shell crabs, skate wings, clams and all manner of delicate white fish.
Ditto asparagus, green beans, cauliflower, squash and mushrooms. In just a few minutes, brown butter will turn a plain pasta or chicken dish into something elegant, something luxurious.
Not long ago, I began to discover the pleasure of brown-butter baking. First, a simple pound cake. Then a little experimenting with brown butter in other cakes. Soon, I started to notice brown butter in all kinds of dessert recipes.
"Brown butter is pretty much like butter plus, butter as an overachiever," says pastry chef Cynthia Wong. "Just the simple act of cooking it until it browns brings out all these wonderful toasted nut and caramel flavors, and even a bit of a savory edge. It adds a depth of flavor I liken to getting a really beautiful crust on a grilled steak."
Wong turned me on to her rich, dense cake of brown butter, apples and toasted pecans. She says her husband calls it "hiking cake," because you could survive on it for days -- should you lose your way in the forest. It calls for steeping a vanilla bean in hot brown butter and yields a batter that is worth eating like ice cream.
Easy Linguine with Scallops and Brown Butter
Pasta stirred with brown butter and sprinkled with bread crumbs is a comforting, homespun dish that can be made in minutes. Add scallops and you have a dish fit for company. You can prepare this in the time it takes to boil pasta. Make it a vegetarian entrée by substituting blanched vegetables (such as asparagus or cauliflower) for the scallops. Some people have trouble telling when a fat sea scallop is done; quartering them makes the job easy. Serves 4. Prep time, 10 minutes. Total time, 10 minutes.
16 ounces linguine (may use spaghetti, angel hair, fettuccine or other pasta of your choice)
6 tablespoons butter
12 large sea scallops (about 1 pound), chopped into quarters
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup toasted breadcrumbs (preferably homemade), plus more for garnish
2/3 cup chopped parsley
Kosher salt or sea salt
Freshly cracked black pepper
BOIL pasta in a large pot of salted water over medium-high heat until al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside in a large bowl.
MELT butter, while pasta is boiling, in a cast-iron skillet over medium-low heat. Cook the butter, stirring regularly, until the solids are just beginning to turn brown, about 3 minutes. Spoon about 1 teaspoon butter over the breadcrumbs and toss to coat. Add the scallops and cook until they are just cooked through, about 1 minute.
REMOVE from heat and stir in garlic and lemon juice. Dump the scallops and brown-butter sauce over the pasta. Add breadcrumbs and parsley, and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Divide into four large serving bowls and garnish with breadcrumbs.
Nutrition information: Per serving: 789 calories (25 percent from fat), 37 grams protein, 109 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 21 grams fat (11 grams saturated), 84 milligrams cholesterol, 635 milligrams sodium.
Linton Hopkins' Brown-Butter Creamed Winter Greens
Adapted from "The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook" (UGA Press, $24.95). Serves 6-8. Prep time, 40 minutes. Total time, 40 minutes.
For the Béchamel sauce:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 small bay leaf
6 black peppercorns
For the greens:
6 ounces slab bacon, rind trimmed
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup finely chopped onion
3 1/2 pounds baby winter greens (such as collards, mustard greens or kale), stemmed and coarsely chopped