What Is Brown Butter and Why You Should Be Using It in Everything

updated Feb 19, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

Brown butter is having a major moment right now. It’s on restaurant menus and bake-shop line-ups and even the freezer aisle (we’re looking at you Jeni’s Brown Butter Almond Brittle Ice Cream). And, honestly? It’s not difficult to understand why. Brown butter gives sweet and savory dishes a rich, nutty flavor — and it takes just a few minutes to turn regular butter into brown butter.

Here’s everything you need to know about this delicious culinary trend.

Here’s What Happens When You Brown Butter

As you melt butter in a pan or pot, the milk solids begin to separate from the fat. Because they’re heavier, they fall to the bottom of the pan. The direct heat from the pan toasts the milk solids, which begin to turn brown, creating that nutty flavor. (They don’t burn, unless you let them cook too long.) This toasting process is known as the Maillard reaction (which also gives meat a perfectly-brown sear, not to mention serious flavor and intoxicating aromas.)

To make brown butter, start by melting a stick of butter over medium heat. Whisk the butter as it starts to cook to help the milk solids brown evenly and don’t walk away from the stove! The whole process should take less than five minutes — your butter can go from browned to burnt in a few seconds.

It will start to foam a bit before the color transforms. You’ll know it’s done when your whole kitchen starts to smell like buttered popcorn. At that point, pull it off the heat and immediately transfer it to a container to stop the cooking process.

Credit: Lauren Volo

How to Cook with Brown Butter

Brown butter can be used in pretty much anything your heart desires. For sweets, try using browned butter in simple baked goods — like chocolate chip cookies, brown butter blondies, or the graham-cracker crust for a key lime pie — so the uniqueness of the flavor can shine. For savory dishes, it’s great for dressing popcorn, or adding flavor to sauces for dishes like roasted cauliflower or seared scallops. And brown butter can be transformative when cooking fish. 

When cooking or baking with brown butter, a good rule of thumb to remember is that for every 1/2 cup-stick of butter you brown, you lose about a tablespoon of water through evaporation. So if a recipe calls for one stick of butter and you’re using browned butter, add 1 tablespoon of water to the recipe to maintain the right ratio of liquids to solids. (This is more important in baking than in cooking.)

If you’re subbing in brown butter in a recipe that calls for softened butter — such as M&M cookiesallow your melted brown butter to re-solidify first. This allows for proper aeration when you cream your butter and sugar together. You can easily solidify it by sticking it in the fridge or freezer (just don’t let it get too hard).

Ready to get cooking? Start with our favorite grocery store butter!