To me, butter is a real treat. That doesn’t mean that I routinely slather gobs of it on everything I eat, but when I want to put the finishing touches on a special dinner, I’ll go for butter every time. And not just plain butter: I blend into it my favorite combinations of herbs and other flavors.
Herb butters are simple and quick to make, and the flavor combinations and serving ideas are virtually unlimited. Just imagine Sunday morning sourdough pancakes with a pat of butter infused with raspberries and lemon verbena leaves, or garlic French bread with fresh chives and society garlic flowers blended into the garlic butter, or fresh grilled salmon dressed with a zippy butter containing black kalamata olives, dijon mustard, and herbs.
Making Better Butter
Start with the freshest butter you can find. I use unsalted butter because I like to control the amount of salt (if any) in the finished product, and because its flavor is more delicate than that of the heavily salted varieties that are commonly available. Because butter is more perishable when unsalted, I recommend that you keep it frozen until you’re ready to use it.
Any herbs or fruits to be used in the butter should be fresh but without excess moisture, which will hasten spoilage. If you are picking fresh herbs for use in butter, wash them in the garden, “on the hoof”, the day before you cut them.
Choose herbs that complement each other as well as the dish you have in mind. I find that herbs with strong, earthy flavors (as those in the Kalamata Olive Herb Butter on page 48) blend well, as do those with more delicate flavors (see, for example, the Dill-Burnet Butter on page 48). Any herb blend you find pleasing is a good candidate for an herb butter. When I was a child, my mom dressed chickens with “poultry seasoning” that came out of a can and smelled divine. Now that I’ve grown up and can read the label, I achieve that flavor in a basting blend with half a pound of butter, one or two pressed garlic cloves, a little salt and freshly ground pepper, and a teaspoon each of fresh chopped rosemary, lemon thyme, oregano, and sage.
I use my food processor for blending herb butters, but you can mix them by hand if the ingredients are thoroughly chopped in advance. Begin with butter at room temperature, and thoroughly blend in the base ingredients–those that are powdery or pasty and others that add color and flavor but little texture. Then add the ingredients that are to be more apparent in the texture, such as herb leaves or olives.
Freshly made herb butter should be refrigerated for at least three hours (overnight is better) to allow the flavors to blend. It can be frozen as long as three months without noticeable loss of flavor.
Sometimes I pack my butters in ordinary plastic containers such as commercial margarine tubs or freezer containers, but usually I like to do something fancy with them. Here are a few of my favorite ideas.
• Pack the butter into small plastic molds and freeze them, then pop each out into a plastic bag and keep frozen until served. Melt a molded shape of herb butter over fresh pasta.
• Roll butter into a fat cylinder, wrap it in plastic wrap, and chill it until solid. Slice off rounds as needed to top vegetables, fish, or bread.
• Pipe butter florets through a pastry bag fitted with a large star tip onto a cookie sheet, then freeze.
• Shave off colorful curls of refrigerated herb butter with a butter curler.
• Make butter balls with a melon baller, then add texture with butter paddles.
• With a rolling pin, roll the butter out about 1/4 inch thick, then cut various shapes with miniature cookie cutters. Freeze until ready to use.
• Whip the butter with a hand-held mixer until it is light and fluffy, then pack it in earthenware crocks. (You need a whisk attachment to whip butter in a food processor.)
• Use herb butter in making pastry crusts; use savory herbs for savory dishes and sweeter herbs (such as lavender and lemon verbena) for pastries.