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Begin With Unsalted Butter
Whole butter is made up of three things: 80 percent fat, 16–17 percent water, and another 3–4 percent milk proteins. Clarified butter is the translucent golden-yellow butterfat left over after the milk proteins and water are removed.
There are a couple of reasons for doing this. For one thing, clarified butter is great for sautéing because it doesn't burn as easily as ordinary butter. It's the milk proteins that cause butter to smoke, but with clarified butter, you can cook at hotter... temperatures. To illustrate, ordinary butter will start to smoke at around 350°F, while clarified butter can be heated to at least 450°F before it reaches its smoke point.
It also has a longer shelf life than whole butter, again because it's the milk proteins that can spoil.
To begin, gently melt a stick or two of unsalted butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over a low heat.Continue to 2 of 6 below.
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Let the Milk Solids Separate
As the butter melts, you'll see a layer of foam rising to the surface. The bubbles are the butter's water content boiling off, and the white residue is the milk proteins separating out from the butterfat and water.
If you've ever cooked milk too long and had it curdle, it's the same thing. Curdling happens when the milk solids break away from the emulsion, either because of heat or the introduction of an acidic ingredient like lemon juice.Continue to 3 of 6 below.
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Skim the Foam and Milk Solids
As the butter continues to simmer, use a ladle to skim the foam and milk proteins from the surface of the liquefied butter. Note the clear, golden liquid underneath the foamy residue. This is different from the technique for making ghee, in which the milk solids are allowed to settle to the bottom and turn slightly brown. That adds a nutty flavor to the ghee, which isn't bad, but it's not what we're doing here.Continue to 4 of 6 below.
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Set Aside the Milk Solids
Keep a separate bowl for the buttery, foamy milk solids you skim off — it's fantastic on popcorn, for one thing. You can also add it to mashed potatoes, or serve over cooked vegetables or fish, or even pancakes, waffles and the like.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
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Continue Skimming and Simmering
In a few minutes, you'll have skimmed off most of the milk solids, leaving just the pure, yellow butterfat.
Another use for clarified butter is making sauces, especially butter-based emulsified sauces like Hollandaise and Béarnaise. The water in ordinary butter can destabilize the emulsion and cause it to break. Clarified butter, with the water removed, eliminates this problem.Continue to 6 of 6 below.
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Remove Clarified Butter From Heat
Clarified butter doesn't spoil as easily as ordinary butter, so you can keep it for quite a long time, even at room temperature — although a cool place is best, not right next to the stove. For best results, store it in an opaque container with a tight-fitting lid, since prolonged exposure to light and oxygen can cause fats to become rancid.