What is Clarified Butter?
Clarified butter is another one of the many culinary terms that can be intimidating for home cooks to tackle. Let’s take a step back, though, and find out what clarified butter is and how to make it.
Most people think of butter as solid fat. It certainly looks solid enough. However, if we look closer, we find that butter is actually an emulsion. An emulsion is a forced mixture of two dissimilar substances that don’t normally like to mix. Think oil and water.
In the case of butter, the two dissimilar substances are butterfat (roughly 80%) and water (roughly 17%) along with about 3% milk solids. The emulsion breaks and the components separate when heated. Clarified butter is nothing more than pure butterfat. Not so intimidating now, huh?
How to Make Clarified Butter
It is very easy to make clarified butter. Just slowly melt unsalted butter in a pan over medium-low heat. As the butter melts, some of the water will evaporate, and, since water is heavier than butterfat, some will sink. Likewise, some of the milk solids will sink to the bottom and some will rise to the surface as foam.
Let the butter sit for a minute or two for all the layers to separate. Then, skim off the foam and spoon or carefully pour the butterfat into a separate container, making sure to leave the water and milk solids behind.
Advantages of Clarified Butter
Many chefs consider clarified butter to be superior to whole butter for sautéing. This is because the milk solids present in whole butter brown and then burn well before the butterfat has reached its smoke point. As a result, whole butter is not recommended for high-heat cooking. If you still want the taste of butter without worrying about burning milk solids, clarified butter certainly fits that bill.
Does it make sense to make clarified butter at home? That depends on the cook. If the cook is a fan of high-heat cooking (sautéing or frying) and prefers the flavor of butter as opposed to a more neutral oil, clarified butter might be the way to go.
Clarified butter is certainly easy to make. It also keeps very well. Refrigerated, clarified butter will stay fresh for several months. Frozen, it will keep for much longer. Another plus to cooking with clarified butter is that, since the milk solids are eliminated, it is suitable for people who are lactose tolerant.
If the cook is more concerned with lower-calorie foods, they might choose to cook with an oil that contains more mono- and polyunsaturated fats than butter, which contains almost all saturated fat.
Another form of clarified butter is the Indian ghee or French beurre noisette (browned butter). Browned butter is made in a similar manner to clarified butter, but the milk solids that sink to the bottom of the pan are allowed to brown before pouring off the fat.
The Maillard reactions that result in browning also impart a wonderful, deep nutty flavor to ghee or browned butter. Browned butter is very rich and flavorful and can be used for sautéing, but it also adds a rich, nutty flavor to classic French financiers and genoise.