A dumb thing to do, here, would be to tell you that the basic goodness of compound butter, its fundamental appeal, is much of anything other than that it is butter. It’s butter! That’s it. Butter good.
The thing about “butter good” is it’s almost like you’re not allowed to say it. For healthy types, butter bad. For culinary ambition, butter cheap. For not horrifying your in-laws by eating great handfuls of cold butter right out of the fridge, butter disastrous.
Here’s the most insidious of all reasons why we don’t say “butter good” all the time: it would be crushing to the entire restaurant enterprise.
This is an open secret of good restaurant food: it’s all—all of it!—soaked in butter. “Buttered,” it turns out, is synonymous with “delicious.” Roasted veggies? Drenched in butter. Pasta sauce? Buffed with beurre monté. Those killer fajitas? They took a butter bath the moment they came off the grill. You will know this is true the moment you ask your server to bring you something, anything, sans the butter. They get that wild, panicked look; a twitchy desperation shows in their fingers. Oh, God, if I tell the cooks to hold the butter, they will stab me.
This is why the restaurant steak is better than your steak at home, even after all the attention and dedication and ritual you’ve poured into perfecting your grill skills. Some butthead in a filthy apron pulls a steak off the grill having barely paid it any attention, slaps a pad of salty butter on top, and renders all your steak efforts meaningless. Damn him to hell.
Compound butter may just be an excuse to eat butter on everything, but it’s also more than just butter. As with most recipes, it is greater than the sum of its parts, which is convenient, because, in literal terms, compound butter is butter with stuff crammed in it. Never mind: it deserves to be made, and deserves to be eaten on everything. It elevates butter from cheap decadence to complex, refined decadence, so that when you literally eat it by the spoonful, it will be because you are a foodie, and not because you are a gross fucking pig. Let’s make some.
You will need: some good unsalted butter, some extra-virgin olive oil, some coarse salt, some herbs, a food processor, and some wax paper or parchment paper.
Let’s talk butter. Through my twenties, I was a Land O’Lakes man. Saying “I was a Land O’Lakes man,” though, is not very different from saying “all butter is basically the same.” And, hey, Land O’Lakes is butter, so long as it is actually butter, and not margarine. Put down the goddamn margarine and pay attention, dammit.
I was a Land O’Lakes man. My wife took me to a birthday dinner at a fancy spot, and there was bread, and with the bread we were presented two ramekins of butter, one salted and one unsalted, directly from dairy farms in the upper Midwest. What’s this goddamn fancy butter, are they too good for Land O’Lakes? And then I tried the butters, and my tongue leapt from my mouth and slapped me hard across the face for being an asshole.
Right, so, Land O’Lakes is butter, and will do you just fine in, say, a cake, where the properties of butter are more essential than the butter’s actual flavor. In most situations, in fact, Land O’Lakes is fine. For compound butter, where the butter’s reason for being there at all is as a huge Viagra-blast of richness, we’re gonna reach for the most delicious stuff we can get our hands on. Within reason.
You’ve got some options, here. Plugra makes a really tasty, creamy-as-hell butter, and isn’t hard to find. Kerrygold’s butter is tasty, too, and widely available, and has the added benefit of having come from grass-fed cows, which means it is, like, good for you, or whatever. Each of them will run you about five bucks for half a pound. There’s fancier, more expensive stuff out there—goat butter, small-batch stuff, etc.—but beyond a certain point, we’re gonna run up against diminishing returns. After all, we’re loading this butter up with herbs and oil and salt, something we probably wouldn’t do with butter made from the milk of God’s Own Cow. So get yourself one or two blocks of unsalted Plugra or Kerrygold butter, or something in that range.
We’re going unsalted here for a couple reasons. In general, unsalted butter is used in recipes, allowing you to control the saltiness of the end product, whereas salted butter is put out on the table as a spread or topping. Compound butter is a weird hybrid of the two: it is, itself, the result of a recipe, and so the butter could be said to be an ingredient, even though the end product is mostly still just butter, and will be used as a spread or topping. As a practical concern, we want our compound butter to be salted to our specific preferences. Mostly, though, I like compound butter to have those little crunchy zings of coarse sea salt in it. God, that’s the best.
Which brings us to salt. Sea salt is mineral-rich and good for you, and it has the benefit of coming in different textures, even different colors. For our purposes, we want something with some crunch to it. As a general rule, the darker or more colorful the sea salt, the richer it will be in minerals, which will impact both its dietary value and its flavor. Go wild, here. I’ve used everything from white-flake sea salt to opaque red sea salt to coarse hickory-smoked sea salt I found at the Wholiest of Foods. You will need just a teaspoon or two of good, crunchy, coarse sea salt. Just make sure whatever you’re getting has grains not too much smaller than a Grape Nut.
Okay. We’ve got unsalted butter and salt. Whoop-de-fuckin’-doo, you are thinking, noting that one plus one equals two, and they sell two right next to one of those ones back at the got-dang grocery store. Get a grip on your horses, sock the butter away in the fridge, and let’s talk about flavor. As with the salt, you can go a bunch of different ways, here. You could roast some garlic, or you could mince some tarragon, or you could bust out the brown sugar and maple syrup. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination and the fact that many combinations of foods are gross and what are you even thinking about right now, tree bark is not food.
Try this combination out: grab some chives, some parsley, some sage, some rosemary, and some thyme. You’ve got a food processor? Cool. No? A blender? Less cool. Not even a blender? Woof, buddy, you are gonna be chopping. The idea here is to mince the herbs, a job that will be considerably easier if you’ve got a violent machine to do it for you. Pour a glug or two of tasty extra-virgin olive oil into your food processor, and then a hefty pinch of just the edible parts of each of your herbs. Process this stuff until the herbs are fairly obliterated and the oil is green.
Now we’re gonna add the butter. The best way to do this will be to cut the butter into cubes or rectangles and pulse them into the mixture a few at a time. If you’re a goddamn Luddite and you’re going the chopping route, you’ve got a pile of dry chopped herbs or a bowl of chopped herbs in olive oil, and a screaming elbow. It’s about to get worse: cube your butter and whip it in a big bowl until smooth, before adding it to the herbs. This is a shitty deal, my man.
Don’t worry about getting proportions exact or anything like that. Cube a block of butter and mix it on in there. Now taste. If it’s too herby or green or whatever, cube the next block of butter and start adding, until it’s where you want it. I like an assertive, herby compound butter, but I also want to taste butter. Butter is what is good.
What you will wind up with, after mixing in the butter, is a greenish, green-flecked butter paste the texture of, say, cake icing. It’s already delicious! You could eat it right now, right here, on the kitchen counter with a spoon, and no on can stop you! First, do this: drop in a pinch of your fancy salt, pulse the mixture a few times, and taste. Do this a couple times, until the salt seems evenly distributed, and the mixture has however much saltiness you like. If we do this just right, and carefully, the salt will mostly stay intact, so the butter itself will stay mild and unsalted until blam! Bite of salt! Whammo! That’s the best.
Almost done! Roll out a big sheet of parchment paper or wax paper or (if you must) plastic wrap. Towards one end of the sheet, spoon and wipe and in all other ways dump your butter mixture on there, aiming basically for the shape of a gnarly caterpillar, with several inches of room between its disgusting caterpillar face and butt and the edges of the paper. Bring the nearer, shorter end of the paper up and over the caterpillar and tuck it, with the minimum amount of delicacy and precision, under the caterpillar. Now roll that fucker up as tightly as you can without pushing the butter too close to the ends. If you left yourself enough room on the ends, twist ‘em up to press in and contain the quickly-melting butter. If not, man, get that shit in the fridge as quickly as possible, this is a disaster.
Hell, either way, get that shit in the fridge as quickly as possible. Regular-ass butter doesn’t much require refrigeration, but our compound butter has olive oil in it, which is definitely liquid at room temperature. Give it an hour or so to cool and solidify. There. Done. Log of compound butter.
Lots of possibilities, here. When I’ve got some delicious herb butter in the fridge, I almost never eat veggies without dropping a pad on top. Literally any meat or fish will benefit from an application. It will send a nice pork chop over the fucking moon. Put out a thick pad whenever you’ve got any kind of bread on the table. Believe me, you will come up with lots of ways to use this stuff.
The very best thing, though, is pulling a thick steak off the grill and, while it’s still blistering hot, laying a fat pad of compound butter on the top. MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM. Chives and rosemary are already natural partners for a good steak, but wait until you take that first bite and get the rich, creamy, melted butter, the vibrant, intoxicating aroma of the herbs and olive oil, and that devastating pop of crunchy salt. Holy goddamn shit, you will say, but it will sound like hrlrgrdrrshrr, but no one will care, because no one will be listening, because literally everyone will be saying hrlrgrdrrshrr.
HRLRGRDRRSHRR. Butter good. Amen.
Chris Thompson lives in Virginia, hate-loves and writes about the Wizards, and spends too much of his meager income on meals out. He’s also written for Gawker, Vice Sports, and The Classical, and can be found on Twitter @MadBastardsAll. He’ll be doing these every other Saturday; check the Foodspin archive here.
Adequate Man is Deadspin’s self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.