How to Melt Butter the Right Way for Every Recipe

Melting butter on the stove is a deceptively complex chemical experience, but an easy cooking one.

I grew up without a microwave so my reference point for anything that needs to be heated in a recipe is almost always to use the stove as my go-to tool, which is why it floored me the first time someone asked me how to melt butter without a microwave. But this is actually a deceptively complex question. Using a microwave, you might place some butter into a dish, nuke it for 20 seconds, and take it out as soon as it liquifies. Simple. Microwave doors are a little hard to see through in detail, so the various stages that butter goes through as it melts are not as obvious as they are on the stove, where you might worry that you haven't melted it enough or that you've taken it so far it's now burnt. Is it okay if its bubbles? What are those white splotches? There's actually a lot going on here, chemically speaking, but your job is still relatively simple, and it's pretty hard to mess up melting butter, whether you use the stove or not.

Other than being an incredibly delicious, creamy, and sometimes salty fat, butter is also first and foremost an emulsion. That means it's a combination of two or more liquids that normally separate, but have been seamlessly combined. Although your stick of butter looks like one distinct thing, it is actually emulsified milk fat and water. When you heat it, the two components begin to separate. This is also what's happening in the microwave, it's just harder to observe — and also to sow doubt — when looking through the microwave door versus down into an open pot that's on the stove.

As butter melts, you'll notice that some white flecks will begin to float on the surface of a yellowish liquid that looks a lot like olive oil. The white flecks are the milk solids, or fat component of butter, while the liquid contains a lot of water. The longer you heat the melting butter, you'll observe it move through different stages.

If your only objective is to simplify melt solid butter to add to baked goods, you can heat a stick of butter that's frozen, cooled, or room temperature over medium heat until it has just liquified. You'll see some of those white flecks of milk solids, but the liquid won't really have started bubbling yet, and that's just fine.

But what if you take it further? You'll notice the liquid start to boil, and increasingly the bubbles will multiply so quickly you'll see it turn almost to a froth. That's the water evaporating. If you take this process to the point where almost no bubbles remain, you'll end up with clarified butter — also called ghee — a form of highly concentrated butter that is mostly just fat.

Beyond the point of cooking off the water, you can also toast the milk solids, and end up with what's called "browned butter." As the melting butter froths, under the bubbles you'll start to see the white flecks darken in color. Once they've reached a pale gold, you should remove the pan from the heat, as the milk solids will continue to brown, and you should take care not to burn them. This type of butter is not only mostly fat, but the toasted milk solids add a really nutty and rich caramel-like flavor to any dish. This is an equally welcome ingredient in pasta sauces and in cookie recipes. If your recipe simply calls for melted butter, you can take it to the next level on your own. If a recipe calls for one stick of melted butter, you would simply melt that stick to the point of browning it, and proceed with the rest of your recipe as is. There's no need to change the proportions or anything.

Unless you burn your butter, you can't really mess up the process of melting butter on the stove — and to avoid burning, just make sure to watch it closely as it melts. It goes through these various stages fairly quickly. But just-melted butter, clarified butter, and browned butter will all more or less work in any recipe, just with variations in flavor and texture.

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