The Wonderful World of Butter

So, I bet you were all expecting this to be “Candy Apples Part 2”, weren’t you?  Well, let me tell you something, kiddos…so was I.  Alas, the final recipe needs more tweaking than I have time for this week (which is what happens when one leaves the house for nearly 12 hours at a time–Happy Tech Week, theatre people!).  Needless to say, a new recipe was not on the schedule either.

Sooooo, instead, we get to learn about BUTTER.  Butter is one of those words that means more to me than it does the average person, as my great-grandmother after whom I was named (well, “middle-named”) apparently LOVED butter, as does my grandpa.  And as a child I guess I was quite fond of it myself.  I can taste fake butter from a mile away–don’t try to fool me, fools!

Anyway, TO BUTTER.

Let’s all just get this over with: Butter is a fat.  More accurately, in the USA, it is at least 80% butterfat, the other 20-or-less% being water and milk solids, according to the Joy of Baking website. The fact that butter is a fat is important in many ways for baking and cooking.

For one, there’s Taste.  I’m sure most of you have heard the phrase “Fat Equals Flavor”.  This, as a broad comment, could be true–but literally, fat is a flavor-enabler.  Fat has little flavor of its own…bite on a stick of unsalted butter to figure that one out (please don’t). What fats actually do is transmit the flavors surrounding it.  Ever pulled a stick of butter out of the fridge or freezer to find that it has a certain “presence” about it resembling that pizza it was sitting next to?  It can’t be just me, here.  Butter picks up the flavors around it and kind of spreads them over your tongue–giving not only a pleasing texture, but a slow-melting environment to prolong the amount of time the other flavors stay on your tongue.  It should be noted that not all flavors are, shall we say, fat soluble–so fat won’t absorb every flavor. (This paragraph brought to you loosely by Gizmodo…and a source from years ago that I forget).

Secondly, butter helps form the texture of a multitude of things!  As the Gizmodo article is keen to point out, the crispiness of potato chips is thanks to fat.  The creaminess of ice cream is the same.  “Mouthfeel”.  (Try to not put your tongue to the roof of your mouth while saying that word, I dare you). As Joy of Baking reminds us, butter is the reason why pie crusts are flaky, when pea-sized chunks of butter are trapped between layers of flour.  Finally, as the ever-delightful Alton Brown points out, cakes rely on butter for an even crumb, as one might say.  The tiny air bubbles that give cakes their lift are much the result of a leavening agent such as baking powder–however, baking powder on its own will give you a cake whose inside looks like craters.  I wish I could show you the video–it’s so short and informative–but Alton needs to make his living somehow, and it’s not by keeping videos on YouTube for free. Look for “A Cake on Every Plate” if you happen to have the Good Eats series.  Anyway, you may be surprised to know that a lot goes into the oft-overlooked first step of creaming butter and sugar.  You see, when you beat the two of them together, the sugar granules pierce the butter evenly and in a minuscule manner, making “seed bubbles” for the leavening to expand later… which leaves, not craters, but nice, same-sized bubbles throughout.

To help with texture in cakes as well, butter helps stifle that pesky protein GLUTEN.  Too much gluten in your cake, and it will be tough.  What is the main source of gluten in cakes?  Water and flour meeting.  So how does butter come into play to stop this?  Well, maybe you have heard the rule that, when alternating between wet and dry ingredients in a cake, you should start with the dry.  This is because, that way, the flour goes directly into the butter mixture already in the bowl, getting a nice coating of fat to repel the water from the milk or other liquids.  The liquids are repelled, not as much gluten is formed, and you have a soft cake.  Yayyyy!

Let us briefly discuss milk solids before I finally leave you for the week.  In clarified butter, the milk solids are removed to make an even smoother texture (and appearance!).  In browned butter, the milk solids are kept and used for their toast-ability.  Maybe I’ll do a little tutorial about those some day.  NOT IN THIS APARTMENT, THOUGH.  (Our stove has bad lighting). Til then, I think you have enough fun info about butter to inspire some fine baked goods.  Adios for now!

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