Ingredient of the Week: Butter

Butter.jpg
Photo from Bridget Camden
Everything tastes better with butter.
Ah, Thanksgiving. Hands down the best holiday of the year. Four days off, football, usually the beginning of cooler weather, no gift-giving frenzy -- just good, old-fashioned gluttony. And what ingredient better to be gluttonous about than butter?

Earlier this week, we showed you how to make butter. Now, we show you what to do with it.

What is it?

Butter is a dairy product made by churning an animal's milk or cream. Often cow milk is used, but sheep, goat, or even buffalo milk can be substituted. In fact, the first butter was likely made from sheep or goat since cattle were not domesticated till much later. The first butter, as the story goes, was made 4,000 years ago when a nomad tied a pouch of milk onto his horse and traveled some great distance. The heat and jostling of the pouch eventually turned his milk into butter. Before butter became a common food, it was considered a bartering tool: pilgrims stored tubs of butter on the Mayflower to use as a trade commodity. One could say this is why butter is so prevalent in Thanksgiving food, but we all know the more likely reason is it's just so damn good.

Butter is frequently pale yellow in color but can range from deep yellow to white. This coloring is from the carotene and xanthophyll that is present in cow feed. The USDA requires butter to contain at least 80 percent milk- or butterfat, but other than that, there's plenty of variety.

The most common type eaten in the U.S. And U.K. is sweet cream butter; and even this can be broken down into salted, unsalted, or whipped butter. The general rule is to use lightly salted butter for cooking or as a table spread and unsalted butter for baking. Of course, salted and unsalted butter is often interchangeable unless a recipe states otherwise. Whipped butter has been whipped full of air, making it a lighter, fluffier, and more spreadable option. In continental Europe, cultured butter is more popular than sweet cream butter. Lactic acid cultures are added to the cream for flavor, and the result is cultured cream butter.

And then there is compound butter and clarified butter. Compound butter is made by mixing softened butter with additional ingredients like herbs to create flavored butter. Clarified butter is milk fat rendered from butter to separate the milk solids and water from the butterfat. It can be made by heating butter to its melting point and then letting it cool again thereby separating the whey from the butterfat. Clarified butter can be heated to a much higher temperature (400°F) without burning.

How do I use it?

Butter is incredibly versatile and tasty, making it an absolute staple for not just the holidays but everyday cooking. Eat lightly salted butter plain as a spread on bread. Melt it and use as a condiment for seafood. Use it as the fatty basis for cooking meats, vegetables, or grains. In sauces, cold butter helps marry the fat with the water, resulting in a creamy texture. In baking, unsalted butter is typically used. For melt-in-your-mouth cookies, use softened butter; the butter's low melting point keep cookies moist and chewy on the inside while crispy and golden on the outside. For pie and pastry crusts, use hard, cold unsalted butter. The flaky texture is produced when the cold butter is trapped between layers of dough and then melted in the oven, creating air pockets. Again, your buerre blanc won't explode if you use unsalted instead of salted butter--the "wrong" kind of butter is often better than no butter at all.

Butter is an essential ingredient in every Thanksgiving meal. From the turkey to the mashed potatoes to the corn, casseroles, and pies, you can bet your butter dish that there's some smooth yellow goodness in almost every single dish--it is such a large component of comfort food.

Where can I find it?

In the dairy section of any grocery store. Butter either comes in a tub or as sticks in a box. I prefer sticks as their measurements are easier to manage. There are eight tablespoons in one stick of butter; four sticks equals two cups or one pound.

Butter can be kept at room temperature for a few days without spoilage but perhaps it's safer to keep it refrigerated. Store it in an airtight container away from aromatic foods since it tends to absorb odors easily. If stored properly, butter will keep for up to six months in the fridge and a whole year in the freezer.

Recipes

Here are recipes to make a full Thanksgiving spread, so pack that butter from your cart straight into your arteries by way of something delicious.

Butter Creole Marinade
Once you have fried turkey, you can never go back. It's tastier and easier than regular roasted turkey. Inject this butter marinade in your bird, rub it down with Creole seasoning, then refrigerate overnight. Fry the turkey the next day, and the result is a mouth-watering deep-fried Thanksgiving turkey.

Classic Thanksgiving Dressing
Dress up this dressing even more by adding fruit, mushrooms, nuts, and/or sausage.

Slow Cooker Mashed Potatoes
With all the burners and oven space taken up by other dishes, why not utilize the trustworthy slow cooker? Throw all the ingredients in, and forget about them until the buttery smell of mashed potatoes wafts under your nose.

Green Bean Casserole
Paula Dean is the queen of butter. Her green bean casserole is no exception.

Pumpkin Cheesecake
This copycat recipe of Cheesecake Factory's pumpkin cheesecake is bound to have diners asking for seconds. The butter is used in the graham cracker crust.

Happy Thanksgiving! What do you do with your butter?



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