Or, A Tale of Butter Heartbreak and Redemption
Here’s the story of my latest kitchen disaster and how I recovered from it. It turned out to be a great learning opportunity and I’m glad it happened. I think it’s important to share, because one of my primary goals for this blog is to describe the process of cooking, not just pretty pictures of the plated end result. I know I might have drawn you in with such a picture like the one above, but be warned – this post will include some unflattering images of what happened along the way. By figuring out why things go wrong, you gain an understanding of how cooking works that you can apply in other situations. (Shout out to Shoshana Turin at Cooking in Heelss, a kindred spirit who knows the value of sharing cooking failures.)
On the Jewish holiday of Purim, we send mishloach manot משלח מנות (or shalach manos in Yiddish; literally, “sending of portions”), or gift baskets of food, to friends, family, and strangers. This year Mrs. A Jew’s Bouche thought I should do an AJB take on hamantaschen, the traditional Purim pastry. Always the abiding spouse, I took her up on the challenge and came up with matcha (green tea) hamantaschen with white chocolate, toasted pecans, and sake-infused Bing cherries. You can find more about those and the full recipe here. (They were incredible, by the way, and well-received by all.)
To go along with them, also at Mrs. AJB’s behest, I planned to make a beurre composé. A lot simpler than it sounds, a compound butter is just butter with other flavorful ingredients folded in. I decided to infuse Tnuva butter (Israeli dairy is incredible, by the way) with roasted garlic, caramelized shallots, and rosemary.
My plan was to blend the butter with rosemary and most of the roasted garlic to infuse the flavors well, then pour out of the blender and stir in the shallots and finely chopped roasted garlic. This would leave actual pieces of the alliums in the butter and provide a little more texture. Once incorporated, I would pour it all into a silicone mold to set. Paired with the matcha hamantaschen and a French roll from Trader Joe’s (hey, with a full time job that keeps me out of the kitchen I’ve gotta save some time somewhere), we’d have the perfect shalach manos delicacies meant to impress and delight.
After I got home from work, I took my butter out of the fridge. Short on patience and time to let it come to room temperature, I diced up the butter and threw it into my high-powered Waring blender. I had to tamp down the butter cubes a bit until things started flowing, and soon everything was going great, as you can see here (click on the clip below to play). The cold butter had warmed up and was spinning around, rich and creamy as can be. I threw in a bunch of the roasted garlic and the rosemary along with some kosher salt.
Soon I was satisfied with how everything had blended together, and there were no more chunks of solid butter. The blender had been on its lowest speed the whole time and just before stopping, I thought I would give it a blitz at high speed to really incorporate everything and also to whip in some more air and make the butter more spreadable once set.
I didn’t realize how big a mistake that was until I poured it out.
Butter is made of water, milk solids (including proteins, milk sugars like lactose, and minerals) and milk fat. They’re bound together as a water-in-oil emulsion, with water dispersed as microscopic droplets throughout the fat, and the proteins acting as emulsifiers holding them together. Whether from the increased agitation or higher temperature from the blender motor (butter emulsions begin to fail around 136°F/58°C), my butter broke. With all the increased action, the microscopic water droplets are more likely to collide, and collide hard enough to join together. When this happens enough, the distinct elements come out of emulsion and you get what you see below.
That greasy layer on top? That’s milk fat that separated out (AKA clarified butter similar to ghee). Underneath you can see all the grainy milk protein solids, water, and globules of milk fat. My butter was broken, and so was I. Yet I also realized the learning opportunity and I grabbed my camera to document my attempt to fix the butter.
It was my only opportunity in a busy week to make the butter, and I didn’t have the time (or willingness) to go out to buy new ingredients and start from scratch. Our shalach manos were to be about quality over quantity, but if the butter didn’t work, that would obviate the rolls to spread it on, and the hamantaschen would be all that’s left (and shalach manos are meant to include at least two prepared items).
This is the point of departure where understanding food and cooking is distinguished from blindly following a recipe. Sometimes a recipe goes off-course and there’s no Waze to lead you back. You’ve got to use your head and improvise. based on what you know.
I’ve dealt with cream sauces breaking before, but never butter alone. It is possible to re-emulsify sauces through blending or whisking at the right temperature (110°F to 120°F; butter actually contains its own emulsifiers, including phospholipids like lecithin, which is also found in egg yolks), but it’s not a guarantee, and I didn’t have time to gamble. I decided to double up and outsource the emuslifying agent.
I happened to have soy lecithin powder on hand, which is a great emulsifier (it’s good to have a decently stocked modernist pantry; I originally got it to make foams, but that’s a story for another time). About 1 tsp per cup of liquid does the trick, maybe a little more.
I used my immersion blender to hydrate and disperse the lecithin so it could do its thing, and I put the butter in an ice bath to bring the temperature down so it could set before settling out or breaking again (just beware that if the temperature is too low, surface tension increases, which can help those little droplets coalesce, too. We don’t want that, either).
I continually blended in the ice bath until the butter cooled down more and started to set, I poured it out into the molds.
At this point, you can see that the butter is still grainy, but more homogenous. (It’s possible I didn’t cool it quickly enough: as the milk fat solidifies around 85°F, the milk fat from separate droplets can fuse together into larger crystals.) My concern here was that I had mixed and chilled the butter enough to make a suspension rather than an emulsion, meaning that the solids are evenly distributed in the milk fat but not bound with it. If that happened, the butter would break again as the parts separated out when warmed (making for a delicious but unappetizing prank on whoever spreads it on a warm roll).
I popped the mold into the freezer for a couple hours to fully set (covering it well so the fat in the butter didn’t pick up any off-tastes or odors from the freezer). You can see below that it looks pretty good, no greasy milk fat pooling on top.
Of course, I was still concerned that the butter might break when my shalach manos recipients actually used it. In the name of science, I popped one out of the mold, brought it to room temperature, and spread it on a hot piece of pizza crust. It was delicious. It was emulsified, smooth and creamy, not even grainy. It was butter again!!!
The shalach manos were distributed and throughout the land were heard muffled proclamations of deliciousness as people chowed down on creamy, savory butter slathered on hot rolls before desserting on strange green hamantaschen.
- On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee
- The Curious Cook, by Harold McGee