Sunday, August 28, 2011

Black Butter.

There are two distinct types of Black Butter in the repertoire of the Compleat Chef. One is a thick, quite dark, conserve of fruit of the type enjoyed by Jane Austen, and which featured in a blog post some time ago. The word ‘butter’ in this context intends to convey its spreadable nature, as it does in lemon butter, orange butter, peanut butter, and so on.

Before we move on to the second type, I give you a variation of the first, made with fruit other than the traditional apples.

Black Butter.
Three pounds of fruit, (viz. currants, gooseberries, raspberries, and cherries) to one pound of sixpenny sugar boiled till it is quite thick: it must waste half the quantity. It is a very pleasant sweetmeat, and keeps well.
The Lady’s Assistant for Regulating her Table, Charlotte Mason, 1777

The second type of black butter is the ‘French’ style, called in its native tongue and in classic cookery texts, ‘beurre noire’, and traditionally used as a sauce for fish, eggs, and other dishes. An important concept is that the butter is not, in fact, black in colour. It is made by carefully and slowly cooking butter over a low heat until it is a deep mellow brown. If the melted butter becomes black it is overdone and ruined. I have never understood why it is not called ‘beurre brunes’. Some inscrutable French reason, I suppose. To complete the dish, the flavour of the melted brown butter is then sharpened with lemon juice, vinegar, or capers before use.

Black Butter
Shake a quarter of a pound of butter in a frying-pan till it becomes a deep brown; let it settle; skim and pour it clear off; wipe the pan, and return the butter into it; add two spoonfuls of tarragon vinegar, salt, and mix it.
Domestic Economy and Cookery, for rich and poor, by a Lady, 1827

There is an entirely different English melted butter sauce – some ill-read folk even believe it is the only English sauce – and you can read a few opinions and recipes for it in a previous post.

Quotation for the Day

Butter is the great staple article for breakfast & tea among all classes. The idea of restraining children from a liberal use of good fresh butter is exploded, & they almost live upon bread & butter in this city.
John Pintard (1759-1844) writing from New York to his daughter in New Orleans.


Les said...

How is this different from ghee?

Pete said...

"Black" seems to have been the polite word for "very dark" in the 18th C in both French and English. I've done some reading and research on various aspects of culture in that period and the word "black" is recurrent with a meaning of dark brown, deeply tanned, smudged with ground-in dirt, etc. Rather like the red of hunting clothes is called "pink" -- not a contemporary equivalent at all. What's interesting to me is the meaning of "oiled" in the sense of a butter-based sauce that's separated before serving. That appears in Northanger Abbey and I never understood it before. Thank you!

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Les: to make ghee, the butter is simply melted, the solids allowed to settle, and the fat (ghee) skimmed off - it is not heated and 'cooked'until it is dark brown.

Hi Pete -what a marvellous insight! The more I think about it, the more I think you may be correct. The only discomfort I get is the remaining connotations of 'burnt' with the word 'black'

Les said...


Nature Heritage said...

We have documented Black Butter making (Nièr Beurre as it is known in Jèrriais, the local Norman language) for the first time on film. The trailer is here:

It is not only a wonderful cultural event, but a key to to conserve the vanishing traditional apple orchards. Contact us any time if you like to get involved or get the complete video (DVD).

Spuddly said...

Thanks to a commercial running on TV now, my family was interested in "black butter" mentioned in the commercial. The round of butter with brown streaks in it does not come close to either forms of brown butter you highlight here. (Yours was the first post to come up in Google, so good job there.)
As for beurre noir,, I've never heard it used in this context, but my good French mother called butter that had browned some in the pan as "cooking au beurre bruinier" When I saw the commercial mentioning black butter, my thought was it was beurre bruinier that went too far. But your description of it is more beurre bruinier with some vinegar and herbs added, which does sound delightful.
I find intriguing, the mention of using "black" to denote a darker brown. It reminded me of something I'd not thought about in literally decades. When I was growing up in Vermont, many mothers of the older French families would get quite cross with their kids tanning in the sun yelling "Look at you, you're getting all black!" I never understood the confusing naming what was really a pale tan as "black". In reflection, I think that this, too, is a rather sad commentary on thinking "black" as a negative thing. That's that invisible racism that is so insidious, and hard to ferret out of our language. Regrettable, but hopefully, at least THAT reference may have gone extinct so long after the fact.