Clarified Butter

Clarified butter is what you get when you heat butter to the point that the milk proteins curdle and settle out, the minerals and sugars clump and rise to the top, and much of the water boils away. What you’re left with is nearly pure butterfat.

What’s the advantage of that? Well, once all that’s done butter starts to behave a lot more like oil, and that’s a handy thing when you want the flavor of butter but also want to be able to subject it to high heat. If for instance you want to sauté with it or even fry in it. For the clarifying process has the effect of raising the smoke point of butter from around 325 degrees Fahrenheit to around 425 degrees Fahrenheit, which is pretty darn amazing.



Oils are liquid fats. They are derived from plant sources (seeds, nuts, that sort of thing) and like animal fats have been in use by human beings for thousands of years. Speaking generally, they’re used more by cooks than bakers — solid fats are where it’s at for pastry types — but come in quite handy from time to time.

In the pastry kitchen oils are most valuable when they bring little-to-no flavor to the party. Though a walnut or a sesame oil might occasionally be used specifically for its flavor, most of the time pastry makers use oil solely to introduce richness and/or a moist texture into a cake or muffin formula. The same goes for frying, where the aroma of, say, peanuts or corn can muddle the profile of a fritter or a doughnut.



Shortening is pure vegetable oil, hydrogenated to give it a firm texture. It’s different from margarine (another hydrogenated fat) in that it was not created to be a substitute for butter, but rather as a substitute for animal fat, specifically lard. How does it stack up? Rather well. Like lard it’s all fat with no water in it. That means it’s great for things like biscuits and pie doughs, which lose some of their crispiness and flake with butter because of the water butter contains.

Unlike lard, however, it’s completely neutral in flavor. It’s also quite a bit less expensive. It also melts at a much higher temperature, around 118 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a good thing for things like cookies and (American) biscuits, since you get a lot less spread. And did I mention it keeps indefinitely at room temperature? No wonder that the emergence of shortening in the very early 1900’s coincided with a steep drop-off in the popularity of lard.



Schmaltz is fat from a chicken. You don’t see it around much anymore, but once it was a very common thing in Germany and Austria, and among the peoples who emigrated from there, notably the Ashkenazi Jews. Though the word “schmaltz” can technically refer to beef, pork and even goose fat, it’s come to mean “chicken fat” among people who use it in the States. The cost common use for schmaltz was as a spread, which is to say it was used like butter on toast. However it makes a very nice general-purpose cooking fat as well, and is useful in baking as a tenderizer for doughs (I’ve used it in knish dough) and some crusts.



Margarine is a vegetable oil-based fat that was created as a less expensive alternative to butter. Indeed the composition of margarine is very similar to butter, about 80% fat and 15% water, so the two can be used interchangeably. The earliest margarines can be traced back to mid-nineteenth century France. They were composed of beef fat mixed with water and milk solids for a butter-like flavor. When hydrogenation was invented around 1900, food scientists dispensed with the beef fat and moved to the purely vegetable-based formula we know today.



Suet is beef fat, though not just any beef fat. It’s taken from the kidney region of the steer, so in that way it’s analogous to leaf lard from a pig. What’s special about suet is that it’s mild tasting and extremely firm, in fact it’s the hardest of all the fats humans commonly eat. Whoever can tell me what it is that makes suet the firmest of the fats gets a A for this course. Anyone? Anyone? Yes you at the back with the heart condition. That’s right: it’s the highest in saturated fats. Saturation = firmness, that’s rule of fat.



Lard is fat from a pig. However good lard is made from not just any ol’ pig fat. It comes from the region around the kidneys. This “leaf lard” as it’s called has the mildest flavor and a nice firm texture, and it’s really the only lard that’s good enough for baking applications. Generally you need to find it at butcher shops or farmers markets and must render it yourself. Fortunately that’s pretty easy to do. Good lard does introduce some piggy flavor, but it’s quite nice I think, even in sweet applications.


Cultured Butter

Cultured butters are a lot like sweet cream butters, save for the fact that they’re made with cream that’s been allowed to ferment slightly. Lactic acid go to work on the sugars in the cream, digesting them and creating a variety of by-products including acetic acid, acetoin, ethyl formate, ethyl acetate, 2-butanone and especially diacetyl. The effect of those by-products is to heighten the flavor of the butter, in much the same way a starter heightens the flavor of bread.


Sweet Cream Butter

Most American butters (as well as most Canadian and British butters) are “sweet cream” butters, which means that they’re made from cream that hasn’t been allowed to sour at all. This was a big selling point in the days when dairy wagons frequently showed up late to collect cream from farms, by which point the product had fermented a bit. Butter made from soured cream was acidic and cheesy and mostly unpopular with American consumers. For that reason some dairies would “correct” the cream with an alkaline (like lye) which neutralized the acid but brought even more off flavors to the party. “Sweet cream” butter was bland, but far fresher tasting.


On Butter

Butter is a firm fat that’s made by churning (agitating) cool cream. Cream, its unadulterated state, is an emulsion of fat within water: little butterfat globules within thin lipoprotein membranes, suspended within a watery medium. The act of churning breaks most of those membranes allowing the butterfat — a mix of different types of triglyceride molecules — to flow out.

At that point some very interesting things happen. Groups of like molecules start to collect and stack up on one another, forming crystals. The crystals collect into large masses and when the masses are pressed most of the rest of the watery medium (known as buttermilk) is expelled. The result is a reverse of the original emulsion: tiny drops of water within a medium of fat crystals, free fats and a few remaining butterfat globules.