It's a savior for savory recipes.

By Kelly Vaughan
March 04, 2021
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Everyone knows and loves butter. It's the ingredient that makes pie crusts rich and flaky, the key to irresistible buttermilk biscuits, and a staple that's used for basic culinary building blocks like roux (a thickener made with butter and flour) or sautéing vegetables. Ahead, we explain why butter is so versatile for cooking and share two of our favorite ways to use butter when a recipe needs a little extra oomph.

The Magic of Butter

This delightful dairy powerhouse can save a recipe from tasting too salty or too acidic, says assistant food editor Riley Wofford. "You can try to temper it by adding some butter to sort of even out the flavors," she says. Unless a recipe specifies otherwise, always choose unsalted butter so that you can control the saltiness of a dish; this is especially important if you're adding a tablespoon or two of butter to reduce the saltiness of a particular recipe.

So, what exactly is it about butter that makes it work in so many different culinary applications? "Because it is fatty and coats the tongue, butter not only enriches a dish; it can round out sharp, obtrusive flavors. For example, a concentrated pan sauce of reduced wine and stock is mellowed with the addition of butter," says Ronna Welsh, owner and chef of Purple Kale Kitchenworks, a cooking school in Brooklyn.

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Credit: Christopher Testani

Building Flavor with Compound Butters

If you want to add flavor to some rather bland scrambled eggs, meat, or roasted vegetables, use homemade compound butter, which is simply softened butter mixed with fresh or dried herbs and spices and sometimes garlic. You can also make a sweet iteration, such as a honey and cinnamon compound butter, to spread on your morning toast and make it taste so much better. The herbs or spices mixed into compound butter will add flavor, while the butter brings some decadence.

Butter-Based Sauces

Have you ever overcooked a steak or prepared fish that was too salty? These are other times when butter can save the day, thanks to how it works its magic in classic French butter-based sauces, like beurre blanc and béarnaise, which Riley loves. "I remember making them so many times in culinary school that I had the ratios memorized and I could have made them in my sleep. But they're so luxurious and perfect, and they allow the butter to really shine," she says. Beurre blanc is made with a combination of butter, shallots, white wine, vinegar, and fresh herbs. "In this sauce, cold butter is slowly incorporated into a hot, sharp concentrate of vinegar or wine. Rather than melting to a clear liquid, the butter emulsifies (turns creamy) with the reduced vinegar/wine and turns to a pourable silkiness," says Welsh. Serve a generous drizzle over fish such as scallops or salmon when you feel like they either need more flavor or taste too salty; the richness of the sauce can cut through any off-putting flavors.

Similarly, béarnaise sauce can help elevate an ordinary cut of steak. Although you may not be familiar with this particular French sauce, it stems from one that's extremely popular—hollandaise! Add tarragon, shallots, and red wine vinegar to a basic egg- and butter-based hollandaise and you have béarnaise. The rich, savory flavors of a béarnaise sauce can instantly make an inexpensive cut of steak taste spectacular.

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