Saturday, December 25, 2010

How to Clarify Butter

A few months ago, my parents asked if we could make a dessert for a Greek/Middle Eastern-themed meal for a get-together at their house. I absolutely love baklava and half-seriously suggested that Laurie make one, figuring it was probably something that would be so difficult that she'd just laugh me off. But she did some reading and watched some videos and decided to make a baklava from scratch!

One thing that was called for in many baklava recipes is clarified butter. As Laurie starts to work on her baklava, she asks if I can clarify some butter. My first response is, of course, to point at the butter and say, "that's the butter." But apparently, it turns out that clarifying butter is actually a real thing you do in the kitchen. (This is why she's the chef, and I'm the webmaster)

Not having any clue what I was doing, but having Laurie actually expecting me to produce said clarified butter for her since she was busy preparing other parts of the baklava, I did some quick Googling and found some guides. This was a particularly handy one, since it comes with lots of pictures for someone like me to try and replicate during the process. Those pictures are very indicative of what I saw, so rather than posting any of my own, go look at those.

Anyways, we've made baklava twice now, so I guess I would now consider myself a butter clarifying expert. If there was a professional league for butter clarifying...well, I'd probably still not be in that. But I do feel like I know what I'm doing enough to describe it for other novices.

1. Start with at least 1.5-2 times the amount of butter you need. So if the recipe calls for 1 cup of clarified butter, use 1 1/2 or 2 cups of unsalted butter. Once you're more experienced and can manage to separate the butter without wasting as much of the good stuff, you can go down to 1.25 times the amount needed. The first few times you do this, you will probably need more than that, and it's better to err on the side of extra because of points 2 and 5 below--making it takes at least a few minutes, and it doesn't go bad if you have leftover.

2. Low and slow heat is key for separating. On our stovetop, I put the dial that goes up to 10 around 2 or 3 and that was perfect. At one point we did need some extra butter clarified very quickly, and we did it at like 5 or 6 on the temp dial. You need to be really careful at that heat because you want the water content to boil off but not boil the butterfat. Probably took about 10-15 minutes for each "batch" we made which was generally 2 sticks of butter per batch. There's no firm timeline, it's more of a feel thing about whether or not the butter is fully separated yet.

3. Skimming the fat off is not quite as easy as it sounds. We tried a variety of techniques. I feel like if you had a sieve with a cheesecloth to pour through that would be best. I've also seen suggestions about decanting the fat from the water (pouring it off into another container) which we tried with mixed success. We actually tried using a piece of paper towel to sort of "sop" the foam off the top and that worked pretty well but it's also quite easy to accidentally sop up some of the separated butterfat too. In the end, just using a spoon worked best for me. But even then, I did feel like I was losing an excessive percentage of the clarified butter in the skimming.

4. Once you've got most of the foam skimmed off, take it off the heat and let it sit for a bit, then go back and skim again. Depending on the recipe and how you're going to use the butter really dictates how thorough you need to be in ensuring 100% of the foam is removed. If you're going to be pouring this butter directly back into a hot pan (like for making a sauce), you don't want any foam because that will flash boil and could definitely give you a nice burn. For baklava, it wasn't as big of a deal because of how its just brushed onto the dough and then baked.

5. The other nice thing is that clarified butter will keep for a very long time--I've read people saying they used the same batch for years. So if you have extra, just store it. It's used in a lot of Indian and Middle Eastern recipes. It's also apparently great for dipping lobster and making butter-based sauces like Hollandaise or BĂ©arnaise.

If all of that sounds like too much for you, there is an easy alternative. In your grocery store, go to the Indian section and find ghee -- it's the same thing.

Personally, considering that even I was able to figure this out pretty quickly, I'd say it's probably easier to just make it yourself, especially if you have some kind of cheesecloth or a fine strainer that makes separating the butter easier.
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