What if we told you that there’s a restaurant-worthy item that you can make in your kitchen that is so painfully simple, requires no cooking whatsoever, and one batch with flavors of your choosing can keep for a year? This isn’t hyperbole — we’re talking about compound butter.
Compound butter is, to put it crudely, butter with things mixed into it. See what we meant about the simple part? Compound butter can be anything, from the common “hotel butter” — or Beurre Maitre d'Hotel if you want to get French and fancy — which is always butter with parsley and lemon (zest and juice), and sometimes incorporates garlic. If you’ve ever ordered steak frites at a French restaurant or bistro, chances are there was a nice knob of this sitting atop your beef as it was presented.
This is just the beginning of the compound butter universe, though. Think of hotel butter as the chocolate chip cookie of compound butters: It’s tried, true and delicious, but for ambitious cooks, it’s almost entry level, a gateway baseline recipe that gives you insight into how many other flavor combinations are possible within that world.
One reason compound butter can come in so handy at the end of summer and early fall is it’s an easy way to use up any fresh herbs you have growing in the garden or scored from the farmer’s market. Basil, dill, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, cilantro — they all make fine compound butters, whether mixed together or in tandem with other fruits and spices that those herbs would normally pair with in other applications. Rosemary-garlic-orange zest butter. Thyme and black pepper butter. Cilantro-lime-paprika butter. You see where this is going — and the best part is, there’s no right or wrong recipe. If you’re a garlic fiend, go heavy on it. If you’re anti-cilantro, sub in basil or parsley.
There’s very little technique involved in making compound butters other than softening butter by bringing it to room temperature, mincing up your other ingredients, and then mixing them together either by hand or with a stand mixer or food processor. Consider beforehand what you’re hoping to get out of this compound butter adventure: Are you looking to just make a little bit to have on hand in the refrigerator, or are you looking to stockpile? That will answer the question of how much butter you’ll need, be it one four-ounce stick or two pounds.
As to what type of butter you should use, most chefs and experienced cooks will tell you to use unsalted butter, as that gives you the advantage of being able to control the salt level entirely. Salted butters can have varying salinity depending on the brand or even the batch, so sticking with unsalted will give you the utmost control, both over the salt level as well as the quality of the salt. There’s no better time to break out your snazzy coarse or flaky sea salts than with compound butter — as salt and butter are the peanut butter and chocolate of the savory world: They just get each other. Plus, by using your good sea salt you get to add another adjective to the list when telling your guests that they just put homemade basil-lemon-sea-salt compound butter on their biscuit. Should you feel so inclined, now would also be a great time to spring for a high-quality butter, perhaps even the European-style ones, which have a higher fat content and will therefore freeze better.
Once all of your ingredients are incorporated, it’s time to get your compound butter storage-ready. If you opted for a smaller batch and plan on using it within, say, a week, feel free to store it in a nice ramekin or bowl covered with plastic wrap. Or, if you’d like to serve it in log form, follow this technique that should be used for those freezing excess compound butter: Place sheets of waxed paper on the counter (if you are divvying the batch up into four logs, you’ll need four sheets, and so forth) and divide the butter among them by spooning it into the center of each sheet. Once the butter is divided, you’ll now need to roll the butter into log form, which happens naturally when you fold over one side of the waxed paper and begin to rock it back and forth. You’ll see the butter creeping to the sides and taking shape – and it’s up to you how thin or thick of a log you’d like. Thicker tends to freeze and slice better, so figure on a log about the circumference of a small tomato paste can or larger. Rolling a log too thin will make it more fragile once frozen.
Once all of your logs are at a thickness you like, twist each end to compress the butter into a tighter shape and give it a few twirls or spins on each end to seal it up. Wrap each log in plastic wrap, and store any you don’t plan on using in the freezer for up to a year — slicing off knobs whenever you so desire to add to a sauce, garnish a nice steak or piece of fish – or simply put on a nice piece of toast. The flavors are complex, but the application doesn’t have to be. Just enjoy, and start thinking about what your next batch will entail.