But if there is a truly all-purpose preparation out there, it’s browned butter. Its nutty yet neutral richness really does go with everything.
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What makes it all the more appealing is its simplicity. Browning butter is like flipping a culinary lightswitch: Put a knob in a pan, give it a little heat and time, and suddenly you have an entirely different, more complex-tasting product.
There’s some classic culinary alchemy behind that color and flavor transformation; read on to learn more about it. Plus, we’ve got some tips for knowing precisely when butter is properly browned, since it can quickly go from rich and toasty to burnt and bitter.
The Science of Browned Butter
Browned butter’s deep color and flavor are results of the Maillard reaction, the heat-triggered chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars that creates loads of new, complex-tasting flavor compounds as well as others that give browned foods their color.
The process starts with melting butter. Heat breaks the emulsion, causing the water to separate from the fat and milk solids. As the butter continues to heat, the water evaporates and the milk solids (which contain sugars and amino acids) toast and undergo the Maillard reaction. The butter takes on a dark speckled appearance from the toasted milk solids and smells savory, sweet, toasty, and toffee-like.
How to Brown Butter
- Heat anywhere from 12 to 16 tablespoons butter in 10- or 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until melted, about 2 minutes.
- Continue to cook, swirling skillet and stirring constantly with heatproof rubber spatula, until butter is dark golden brown and has nutty aroma, 1 to 3 minutes longer.
- Remove skillet from heat and transfer browned butter to large heatproof bowl.
Tips for Browning Butter
1. Choose Unsalted Butter
Salted butter foams more when melted than unsalted does, which can make it difficult to monitor the color.
2. Use a Light-Colored Pan
A dark-colored cooking surface makes it difficult to see the color of the milk solids as they darken—crucial to ensuring they reach their browning potential without burning. A stainless-steel skillet works well.
3. Cook Over Medium-High Heat
Moderate heat helps the butter melt gently and evenly. That way, the milk solids toast at the same rate and there’s less risk of over-browning or burning them.
4. Be Vigilant
Pay close attention to the visual and auditory cues coming from the pan. Initially, you might see and hear the butter pop, sizzle, froth, and bubble—signs that the water is evaporating. Don’t walk away! Once the pan quiets down, the solids will start browning and darken quickly.
5. Look for Deep Browning and Nutty Aroma
You’ll know the butter is properly browned when the milk solids turn hazelnut-brown (hence the term beurre noisette, the French name for browned butter) and it smells deeply nutty and fragrant.
6. Don’t Leave Browned Butter in the Hot Pan
Residual heat will continue to brown the butter even after the pan is removed from the burner, so it’s important to transfer it to a heatproof bowl or container as soon as it’s done.
7. Scrape Out the Pan
Much of the flavor of browned butter is in the browned milk solids. Make sure you get every last bit out of the pan.
8. Consider Browning Butter Ahead
Browned butter will keep for months if refrigerated in an airtight container, meaning you can keep it on hand and use what you need on a whim.