About a year ago, I paused when I came across a recipe for shortbread made with butter, sugar, flour and a pinch of salt. It wasn't the ingredient list that drew my attention. It was the recipe's unusual technique, which called for browning the butter before using it in the cookie dough.
Brown butter is made by cooking butter until the milk solids separate from the butterfat and become brown. The butter develops a concentrated taste that is extra special, with the solids - which are essentially sugars and proteins toasted in fat - contributing an incredibly flavorful caramelized nuttiness.
I was familiar with plenty of simple but sensational savory dishes that call for brown butter. Combined with lemon juice, it makes a superb sauce for fish filets or chicken cutlets. It is delicious mixed with chopped fresh sage, as a coating for fresh egg noodles or ravioli. Using it in mashed potatoes is incredible.
Using brown butter to enhance the flavor of baked goods was a natural. I can't believe I'd never tried it.
Before you could say "brown butter cornbread," I got out my skillet and the bulk butter I buy at BJ's and started browning away. I made brown butter waffles, brown butter biscuits and brown butter oatmeal cookies. As I experimented, I became an expert on browning butter. I quickly realized that a stainless-steel skillet or saucepan was key to accurately judging my butter's progress. With a shiny pan bottom, I could see the color of the butter, which becomes a deep golden brown, and the color of the solids, which become the color of milk chocolate when properly cooked. I started using a splatter screen to cover the pan, since butter contains quite a bit of water, which causes quite a bit of splattering as it evaporates when heated. As soon as my butter was perfectly browned, I scraped it and the solids (don't leave those behind-they contain so much flavor) into a cool bowl. If left in the pan for a few extra seconds, even off the heat, the butter continued to cook and inevitably burned.
I've had a lot of fun elevating humble recipes with brown butter. When the aroma of several overripe bananas on my countertop reminded me that I hadn't baked a banana bread in a while, I decided to brown a stick of butter for the task and see what would happen. I added some finely chopped hazelnuts to reinforce the brown butter's effect (brown butter is called "beurre noisette" in French because its luxurious nuttiness is similar to the flavor of toasted hazelnuts). The resulting cake, flecked with those delicious brown bits and nuts, had a fine crumb and a deep, dark butteriness that balanced the sweetness of the bananas.
Brown Butter Banana Bread
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting loaf pan
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup sour cream
3/4 cup mashed ripe bananas (from about 2 medium bananas)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup finely chopped skinned hazelnuts
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan and dust it with flour, knocking out any extra.
2. Heat butter in large, heavy skillet over medium heat until milk solids on the bottom are a dark chocolate brown, 6 to 9 minutes. Transfer butter and solids to a large mixing bowl and chill in freezer until just congealed, 20 to 25 minutes.
3. Combine flour, baking soda and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Whisk together egg, vanilla, sour cream and bananas in another medium mixing bowl.
3. Add granulated sugar and light brown sugar to mixing bowl with browned butter and mix with an electric mixer until fluffy, about 2 minutes.
4. With mixer on low, add 1/3 of flour mixture, then 1/2 of the banana mixture, scraping down sides of bowl after each addition. Repeat with remaining flour mixture and banana mixture, ending with flour mixture. Beat on medium speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Stir in hazelnuts.
5. Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth top with spatula. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 45 to 55 minutes. Let cake cool in pan for about 15 minutes, invert onto a wire rack, then turn it right side up on another rack to cool completely.
Makes one loaf, about 12 slices.