Lots of foods, from steak to chicken to pizza dough, taste better when they’re golden brown. Is the same true for butter? Put your senses to the test and see if cooking butter until it turns brown changes its flavor.
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Make a prediction: Do you think melted butter and butter that’s cooked until it turns golden brown (called browned butter) will taste the same or different? Why do you think so?
In 10-inch skillet, melt 4 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat. When butter is melted, reduce heat to medium-low.
Cook, stirring constantly and scraping bottom of pan with rubber spatula, until butter solids turn golden brown and butter smells nutty, 6 to 8 minutes (see photo, below). Turn off heat and carefully slide skillet to cool burner. Let skillet cool for 1 to 2 minutes.
Carefully pour browned butter into 1 small bowl (ask an adult for help), making sure to scrape out butter solids with rubber spatula. Set bowl aside. Wash and dry skillet and spatula.
In clean 10-inch skillet, melt remaining 4 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat. When butter is melted, turn off heat and carefully slide skillet to cool burner. Let skillet cool for 1 to 2 minutes.
Choose 1 person to give out the samples for tasting (this is a good job for an adult). Everyone else will be tasters. Give each taster a blindfold, a plate, and a glass of water.
Explain that tasters are going to taste 2 samples of bread with melted butter. Their job is to focus on the butter and to notice if the 2 samples smell and taste the same or different. Tasters should keep their observations to themselves until everyone has finished tasting both samples.
Have tasters put their blindfolds on. Dip 1 piece of bread per taster into bowl of browned butter and place on each taster’s plate. Tasters should smell the buttered bread and then eat it, taking small bites and chewing slowly. Have tasters take a few sips of water to give their tastebuds a break.
Repeat with remaining pieces of bread and bowl of plain melted butter. Ask if any tasters would like to repeat tasting with either sample.
Observe your results: Have tasters remove their blindfolds. Ask tasters what they noticed about the 2 samples of butter. Did they smell similar or different? Did they taste similar or different? How so? Did tasters have a preference for either one?
Eat your experiment: Turn all of the butter from this experiment into a browned butter sauce! After step 11, add remaining plain melted butter to now-empty skillet. Brown butter over medium-low heat, following directions in step 3. Carefully pour browned butter in skillet into bowl with remaining browned butter from experiment (ask an adult for help). Add 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, and ½ teaspoon salt to bowl and use rubber spatula to stir to combine. Drizzle sauce over Pan-Seared Strip Steaks.
(Don’t read until you’ve completed the experiment!)
In the Recipe Lab, we noticed a big flavor difference between the browned butter and the plain melted butter. Tasters reported that the browned butter smelled and tasted “nutty,” “toasty,” and “complex.” The plain melted butter was, well, plain by comparison! Some tasters thought that the plain melted butter tasted sweeter than the browned butter. Were your results similar?
Butter is made of fat, water, and small amounts of sugar and protein. When you heat butter, its fat turns from a solid to a liquid as the butter melts. Once the butter reaches 212 degrees, its water boils and starts to evaporate. You probably noticed lots of bubbles in your butter—that was the water evaporating. As the butter continues to heat up, the magic begins: The butter’s amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) react with its sugars to create totally new compounds, some of which are brown and many of which have new toasty flavors. This is known as the Maillard reaction or the browning reaction. It’s named after Louis-Camille Maillard, the French scientist who first studied it in the early 1900s.
But the Maillard reaction isn’t just for browned butter—lots of foods turn brown when they cook. Think steak with a dark crust, golden-brown pizza crust, bronze roasted chicken, and more. And depending on the specific amino acids and sugars in a food, the Maillard reaction creates different flavor compounds. That’s why browned beef tastes different from toasted bread, which tastes different than browned butter! Amazingly, even after a century of research, the Maillard reaction still isn’t entirely understood by scientists—the chemistry is that complicated!