A natural product made from churning cream, butter is a versatile and widely used ingredient. As the cream is churned and concentrated the fat globules combine to form larger and larger lumps. Any excess liquid is drained off (this is known as buttermilk) and the remaining solid forms butter. The majority of butter sold in the UK is salted butter, but unsalted is also available and is more widely used on the continent.
Continental butters tend to have a more cream-like flavour and a pale colour while yellow sweetcream butter, which is widely used in the UK, has a richer flavour. Some recipes say use butter or margarine and although butter is more expensive than margarine it does have a superior flavour so try to use butter where possible. Somerset, dairy and English are just three of the many varieties available and a selection of organic butter can also be bought.
For those on a milk-free diet goats butter is a good alternative. It is made from churned goats cream and can be used in the same way as any other butter. Clarified unsalted butter or ghee (where any excess water is removed) and vegetable ghee are also available. Vegetable ghee is made from pure vegetable oil and is suitable for a strict vegetarian (vegan) diet.
Uses: As well as for spreading on bread, toast and cakes, topping baked potatoes and cooked vegetables, butter is an important ingredient in baking breads, biscuits and cakes. It has a delicious flavour and helps the development of flaky crusts in pastry. It is a main ingredient in many frozen desserts and ice creams. Butter adds flavour and richness to sweet and savoury sauces and it can also be used for shallow frying.
Ghee is popular in Indian cookery and can be used for deep-frying, in curries, rice and savoury dishes or spreading on traditional Indian breads such as chapatti or nan.
To store: Butter should be stored in the fridge until its use by date. It should be stored away from foods that have a strong aroma or flavour. Because of its purity, ghee can be kept without refrigeration for several months - once opened store in the fridge for up to 3 months.
To prepare: For many baked products containing butter, it needs to be at room temperature - remove from the fridge an hour before use and it should be soft enough to use.
To cook: When shallow frying, it is best to use unsalted butter to prevent burning. Salted butter tends to burn quite quickly on exposure to heat, for shallow frying heat it gently - if it turns a dark brown colour a strong burnt taste will taint the food, and add 1 tsp of cooking oil to the pan to prevent it from burning.
Butter absorbs flavours easily and although this means it needs to be stored well-wrapped this property can also be an advantage. Flavoured butters are easy to make - simply mix in your chosen flavouring to softened butter and form into a roll - this can be stored in the fridge or freezer and slices cut off as and when you need them. Ready-flavoured butters are also available.
Savoury flavourings: Chopped mixed herbs - parsley, tarragon and coriander all work well; lemon or lime juice and rind; chopped garlic cloves; crushed black peppercorns; finely chopped red or green chilli.
Uses: Add a knob of herb butter to cooked vegetables. Top grilled meat or poultry with garlic butter or add a slice of pepper butter to steak. Baked fish is good with lemon, lime or chilli butter.
Sweet flavourings: Brandy butter is the classic sweet butter - buy it ready-made at Christmas or make your own: beat 75g of softened unsalted butter with 75g of caster sugar and stir in 6 tbsp brandy. Cointreau butter is also available at Christmas. Whisky or rum can be used instead of brandy if you prefer. For a tangy citrus butter add grated lemon or orange rind and juice to unsalted butter.
Uses: Serve brandy, whisky or rum butter with Christmas pudding. If you have some pudding and flavoured butter leftover, gently heat the butter in a frying pan and fry slices of the pudding. Fry slices of fresh fruit such as bananas, eating apples, plums or pineapple until tender in a little citrus butter, sprinkle with icing sugar to sweeten and top with whipped cream for a quick and easy dessert.