When we talk today of "culinary heroes," we all too often forget the real heroes in cooking: the thousands of unassumingly genuine, curious, and clever cooks of the past who first discovered the techniques that we take for granted. It's on the shoulders of these forgotten souls that our modern culinary knowledge has been built.
Among one the greatest of them was the cook who discovered a simple technique that, over just the right amount of heat would—seemingly like magic—make butter melt in a way that kept it suspended in a liquid, creating a thick, sumptuously silky sauce.
The technique was well known by the time Europeans began to migrate to America, and has been around in Southern cooking from the very beginning. One of the very first published records of it is Mary Randolph's lucid recipe in The Virginia House-Wife in 1824.
To Melt Butter.
Nothing is more simple than this process, and nothing so generally done badly. Keep a quart tin sauce pan with a cover to it exclusively for this purpose; weigh one quarter of a pound of good butter, rub into it two teaspoonsful of flour; when well mixed, put it in the sauce pan with one table spoonful of water, and a little salt; cover it, and set the sauce pan in a larger one of boiling water, shake it constantly till completely melted and beginning to boil. If the pan containing the butter be set on coals, it will oil the butter and spoil it.
– Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-Wife (1824).
To echo Mrs. Randolph, there is no sauce more simple or lovely than this melted, but thick butter; yet it is seldom seen in modern American cookbooks, properly executed or otherwise.
Melted (sometimes called "drawn") butter is the same idea as a classic Beurre Blanc in French cooking: the fat is barely melted so that it stays suspended in the liquid. Though when properly done, it doesn't need flour to help with that, most old Southern cooks like Mrs. Randolph followed eighteenth century English practice of adding a little for stability.
Later in the nineteenth century, this unhappily began to change. The proportion of flour and water (or milk) to butter increased, and most recipes titled "drawn" or "melted" butter were essentially heavy white sauces with barely enough butter in them to justify the name.
In Mrs. Randolph's day, whisks were rare in home kitchens, hence the technique of preparing the butter in a small saucepan that's set over a larger pan of simmering water and gently agitated. The one quibble I would have with Mrs. Randolph is that this is much easier to accomplish without a lid over the pan, so one can watch what's happening. The lid was probably intended to keep water from accidentally splashing into the butter, but if the pan is held just above the water or right on its surface, the lid isn't necessary.
By its nature, a sauce in which melted butter is the thickener can't be hot, since overheating will cause the fat separate, or, as Mrs. Randolph put it, "to oil." That's also why it can't be made too far ahead and held over heat, but is served at once in a sauceboat that's been warmed by rinsing it with hot water. It should be warm but not so hot that one couldn't handle it with bare hands.
To Melt Butter by Mrs. Randolph's Method
Before we begin, a few notes on Mrs. Randolph's recipe are in order. Measuring spoons had yet to be regularized in her day: a table spoon was a large serving spoon, roughly twice as large as our modern tablespoon measurement (which corresponds to a soup spoon in historical recipes). Her tea spoon, however, is roughly the same as our modern measure. The proportion of flour usually given is about 2 teaspoons. I find that one is plenty for half a cup of butter, although it actually doesn't need any flour at all. The sauce is lighter and more delicate without it.
One addition that will help is acid of some kind, which enhances the emulsification and stabilizes it. It will also boost the flavor. Allow about a teaspoon of lemon juice or wine vinegar for the quantity given here.
For little more than ½ cup, you'll need 4 ounces (8 tablespoons or 1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, a teaspoon of flour, 2 tablespoons of water, and a little salt.
First, choose a small (no larger than 1 quart), heavy-bottomed saucepan for the butter and half-fill a larger, 3-quart pan with water. Bring the water to a boil over a medium heat and then reduce the heat to a steady simmer.
Meanwhile, put the butter and flour in the smaller pan and rub it together with a wooden spoon it's well mixed, then add the water and a healthy pinch of salt. Now hold the saucepan just over the simmering water so that it's not quite or barely touching the water. Shake it gently in a swirling motion until the butter melts and is beginning to bubble at the edges, about 4 minutes. Taste and adjust the salt, pour into a heated sauceboat, and serve at once.
It's easier to accomplish with a whisk: Unlike Mrs. Randolph's method, the butter for this technique should be cold and cut into small bits. Omit the flour, which is superfluous and even intrusive in this technique. Warm the 2 tablespoons of water in a 2 quart heavy-bottomed saucepan over the lowest possible heat.
When the water is just beginning to bubble at its edges, add a pinch of salt and whisk in 2-3 bits of butter to the pan until almost melted. Add 2-3 bits more and continue whisking until they, too, are almost melted and emulsified, and continue until it's all incorporated. If at any time the sauce seems to be getting too warm and the butter begins to look at all oily, remove it from the heat and whisk in 4-5 bits of butter at once to bring the temperature down. When all the butter is incorporated, taste and adjust the salt, pour it into a heated sauceboat and serve at once.
Another lovely way that melted butter is used, both in historical and modern cooking, is as a thickener and enrichment, either by whisking or shaking it into a reduction of cooking juices. The example that follows is a recipe I recently developed for a group of Southern ladies in Savannah who call themselves Southern Comfort.
Here, the butter thickens a reduction that has a little lemon juice to boost the flavor and stabilize the emulsion. It's lovely as an appetizer served as-is, with crusty bread for sopping the sauce, but you can also offer it as a main dish with bread or over hot cooked rice or fettuccine.
Serves 6-8 as an appetizer, 4 as a main dish
1¼ pounds large shrimp
4 ounces (½ cup) unsalted butter, cut into bits, divided
¼ cup finely chopped shallots (about 1 large)
2 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
2 teaspoons finely chopped anchovy filets or anchovy paste
1½ ounces (1 jigger or 3 tablespoons) bourbon
½ cup shrimp stock (see step 1)
Louisiana hot sauce, to taste
2 large lemons, 1 halved and 1 cut into 6-8 wedges
1 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped oregano
Crusty bread such as a baguette
1. Peel the shrimp, reserving their shells to make stock. If you're making it ahead of time, cover and refrigerate the shrimp. Put the shells in a saucepan with 3 cups of water. Bring it slowly to a boil over medium-low heat (watch the pot—it tends to boil over). Adjust the heat to a simmer and cook until the liquid is reduced to 1 cup. Strain, cool, cover, and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 6 months.
2. Put 2 tablespoons of butter and the shallot in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté until the shallot is pale gold, about 2-3 minutes, then add the garlic and anchovy. Sauté, stirring, until the anchovy dissolves and the garlic is fragrant, about 10-15 seconds. Add the shrimp and toss until just curled and pink, but not quite firm and opaque, about 1 minute.
3. Remove the shrimp from pan and carefully add the bourbon. Let it evaporate and add the shrimp stock. Bring it to boil, stirring and scraping the pan to loosen any cooking residue, and cook, stirring often, until reduced and syrupy.
4. Return the shrimp to the pan, squeeze in the juice from one of the lemon halves, and add a couple of dashes of hot sauce. Stir, taste, and season with salt and add lemon juice and hot sauce as needed. Add the herbs and, tossing constantly, let the shrimp heat through until completely done, about ½ minute. Off the heat, add the remaining butter and shake the pan until it's barely melted and the sauce is thick. Serve warm with lemon and crusty bread.