April 12, 2012
Grilled cheese, smoke point and how to make clarified butter

h7TPh.St.jpgPicking up on Chris Macias' excellent, lip-smacking story on grilled cheese in Wednesday's Bee, I noticed that Drewski's likes to use clarified butter to grill the bread. The story mentions that clarified butter can be pricy. But it's also something you can make at home. I often use clarified butter for making omelets, since regular butter browns at a lower temperature.

In the excellent book, "Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient," author Jennifer McLagan devotes an entire chapter to butter. The chapter is called, not surprisingly, "Butter: worth it." In it, McLagan talks about clarified butter and shows how to make it. Butter is actually an emulsion of ingredients, including water, butterfat and milk solids. The procedure involves separating the ingredients and leaving behind the butterfat.

According to "Fat," do it like this:

1. Cut sticks of butter into several small pieces, place them in a sauce pan over low heat.

2. Once the butter has melted, use a spoon to carefully skim any foam off the top.

3. Remove the pan from the heat and let stand for five minutes or so. You will notice a clear golden liquid with small white milk solids that sink to the bottom.

4. Using a fine mesh sieve lined with two layers of cheesecloth, strain the liquid into a jar or small bowl. The cloth will catch the milk solids.

5. Cover the container and store in the fridge.

Cooks Illustrated uses a similar method, though it suggests letting the melted and skimmed butter sit for up to 90 minutes, allowing the milk solids to rise to the surface. After that, its technique calls for similar straining. As a bonus, clarified butter keeps longer in the refrigerator.

There are other options for grilled cheese besides clarified butter, including grape seed oil, which also has a high smoke point, and olive oil. Lots of people also like to use mayo instead of butter. It's quick, easy and effective.

I find regular butter works fine with grilled cheese -- as long as you don't have the heat too high. If you are using thick, rustic bread, the best way to make sure your cheese melts all the way through is to cover your pan with a lid as the sandwich is grilled. You'll trap some heat and help the cheese melt before the bread burns.

My favorite grilled cheese involves thick slices of crusty sourdough, grainy mustard slathered on the inside of the bread with some fresh ground pepper, plenty of shredded cheese -- or cheeses -- and a generous amount of jalapenos, sliced and pickled. The peppers give the sandwich a spicy, salty punch. Goes great with a bowl of tomato soup, chowder or sweet potato fries.

And if you want to learn more about butter (it has more than 500 fatty acids and 400 volatile compounds that determine its flavor) and all kinds of other fats that have been misunderstood or maligned, I highly recommend the book "Fat."

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

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