Butter, on its own, really doesn’t need to be improved. Butter is one of the most delicious gifts that the food gods have bestowed upon us, adding richness and flavor and velvety texture to everything from cookies to the perfect pan sauce. Sometimes, though, plain butter just won’t do. When you’re topping a pricey aged ribeye or looking to spice up a bland potato dish, compound butters are an all-in-one solution.
This easy addition to your culinary repertoire is impossibly simple. You soften a stick of butter, mix in your favorite herbs and flavors, and stick it in the fridge before spooning a healthy pat of your newly flavor-infused butter onto your baked potato. Still, there are some tricks that make this process go more smoothly, and help you turn out chef-quality compound butter. Follow these seven rules, and you’ll blend the perfect butter every time.
Cultured butter, like Ireland’s Kerrygold, is superior to most other kinds of butter, but it really isn’t the best choice for a compound butter. The subtle grassy flavors that make this butter so delicious on a slice of bread are completely lost when you add in herbs and spices. A stick of the stuff from the supermarket is just fine. If you stock up on butter when it’s on sale at the grocery store, you can freeze compound butters in batches so that they’ll keep longer.
Softened butter is a necessity for making compound butters. When the butter is too cold, it is difficult to fully incorporate the ingredients, leaving pockets of the fat completely untouched by the flavor you’re infusing. Leave a stick of butter out on the counter for about an hour before making your compound butter. Any longer, and parts of the stick will melt, resulting in a mess, and sometimes an off-putting texture. If you’re using a stand mixer to whip your compound butter, colder is better — the friction from mixing will add heat.
Compound butters work best when they’re richly flavored, as with garlic-herb butter. Pretty much any flavor or aromatic that you have in the kitchen, especially herbs, can be incorporated into a compound butter. Caramelized onions can be easily incorporated into butter, along with cloves of garlic or roasted shallots. Herbs, of course, are an obvious choice, and are a great way to use up any fresh herbs that are about to go bad. Less obvious choices, like kimchee, sriracha, even bacon and bourbon, can be used to create an impressive final touch for your favorite dishes.
Whatever you plan to add to your butter, make sure that it is chopped very, very finely for maximum flavor. If your knife skills aren’t great, use a food processor or hand-powered chopper to achieve uniform small pieces of kimchee or parsley. Another option is to use a high-powered blender, like a Vitamix or Blend-Tec to pulverize your mix-ins into the butter, which provides interesting color and uniform flavor throughout.
When you’re mixing your compound butter, start by cutting the stick of butter into pieces before placing it into a mixing bowl. More surface area will make for easier stirring, and help you ensure that there are no pockets of butter untouched by what you add. Whip the butter together for a few seconds before adding your mix-ins, then incorporate thoroughly with a spoon or mixer. If using a stand mixer, be sure to avoid whipping too much air into your mixture — sticking with the lower speeds is best.
You can certainly just toss a ball of compound butter into a plastic bag and refrigerate, but that doesn’t exactly make for easy serving. Once your compound butter is mixed, stick it back in the refrigerator for a few seconds to harden a little. Then, remove the butter from the refrigerator, and scoop into a plastic bag or onto a sheet of cling wrap, and use the plastic to roll the butter into a log. You can also use mini-muffin tins, or even an ice cube tray, to store your compound butter.
You might just think that your compound butter is only good for topping proteins, but you can also use it as a flavor base for a variety of dishes. Tuck a pat of lemon-basil compound butter under the skin of roasting chicken thighs, or throw a knob of sesame-garlic butter into a stir-fry. And of course, you can always serve your compound butters on crispy baguette as an appetizer or with dinner. If you’re using slices from a cold roll of compound butter to finish steaks or fish, allow the butter to come to room temperature first so it will melt over the surface of the food come serving time. Or use a blow torch to gently (or not so gently) help the process along and make dinner a little more exciting.
Amy McCarthy is Paste’s Assistant Food Editor, and a serious butter enthusiast. Her best compound butter to date is a combination of foie gras and shaved Oregon black truffle. It was seriously legit.
Photo: Brianna Mewborn CC BY-NC-ND