Beurre noisette is basically unsalted butter that’s been slowly melted and browned but not burned. It’s also known simply as “brown butter” in many English-language cookbooks. The formal name comes from French, and means “hazelnut butter” — but no nuts are used to make it. That part of the name is most likely owing to the butter’s final color, which is often a rich brown; it also has a vaguely nutty taste in many cases. Chefs frequently use it in making pastries and desserts, and it can also be a good addition to a number of main courses, particularly those involving fish or seafood. It can usually be used in place of regular melted butter in almost any recipe, and can be a good way to lend a more sophisticated, complex taste without much extra effort.
Essential Ingredients and Equipment
The most important element required to make beurre noisette is time followed closely by patience, but having the right ingredients and equipment can also make a big difference. Quality butter is a good starting place. Most cooks prefer to work with rich European cream-based butters, and unsalted is almost always best. Not only can salt alter the melt time, but not all brands and batches have equal amounts of salt, which can impact the final taste. Hand-churned specialty butters aren’t always widely available, but many experts recommend these for the most authentic taste and experience.
A heavy-bottomed sauté pan is also important. It’s possible to make brown butter in almost any sort of skillet or pot, but quality cookware that distributes heat slowly and evenly will usually give the best results. Thin-bottomed pans run the risk of scorching some of the butter before other parts have even completely melted.
How It’s Made
The process isn’t complicated, but it requires constant attention to prevent the butter from burning. In most cases there’s a fine balance between butter that is browned and that which is burned or scorched. Burnt butter has a very bitter taste. This sort of blackening is sometimes useful, and may be done intentionally — very browned butter is often known as beurre noir, or “black butter,” and is also used by French chefs in a variety of dishes — but if a recipe calls for browned butter, a blackened alternative probably won’t give the same results.
Most chefs prefer to start with sticks that are room temperature, not cold. This often requires a bit of planning for people who normally store their butter in the fridge or freezer. The butter is typically browned over medium heat, usually somewhere around 250°F (about 121°C). When the volume in the pan has reduced by about one quarter, the heat is turned down low. Once light brown flecks appear, the pan is removed from the heat and set it in cool water to stop the liquid from cooking and to cool it quickly and evenly.
Use in Pastries
Beurre noisette is perhaps most frequently used in making French pastries, cakes and cookies. Madeleines and financiers — miniature cakes frequently found in French bakeries — often call for it, for instance, and it is a key element in most traditionally-made croissants. Besides imparting a delicate nutty flavor, the browned butter gives pastries and cakes a toasty flavor and helps them brown and bake evenly, from the inside out.
As an Addition to Main Courses
Browned butter can also complement a wide range of other foods, and can be used in a couple of different ways in standard cooking. It’s a popular sauté vehicle, for instance, particularly for breaded or floured meat. Its lower water content helps the meat take on a crunchier exterior. Cooks can also add lemon juice, often in the ratio of one part juice to four parts butter, to create a flavorful sauce for finished meats, fish dishes, and vegetables. Brown butter can also be added to supplement a variety of other sauces or dressings.