Every cuisine has it’s own list of critical ingredients – ingredients that give a unique character to the dishes that define that genre. However, every kitchen that I know, every chef with whom I have worked, every person who has chosen the heat of the kitchen as the environment for his or her career will relish the following eight ingredients/ingredient categories:
- SALT AND PEPPER
- ONIONS, SHALLOTS AND GARLIC
- OLIVE OIL
I challenge anyone to find a kitchen without these ingredients readily at hand and used frequently as the foundation of one dish or another. I thought that it might be worth the time to talk about each, investigate their historical use, and point out the reasons why they are so critical – so, hang on for this series of eight articles on the essential ingredients of every kitchen.
“With enough butter anything is good.”
This famous quote from Julia Child may be an over-simplification of the relationship of butter and cooking, but it does point to a universal appreciation for the qualities of this dairy product. There have been ample attempts over the years to demonize this ingredient and as a result try and develop alternatives that address the negative impact of saturated fat in our diets, but a true substitute has never been found. Here are some of the important attributes of the magical spread.
 WARM BREAD AND BUTTER
A perfect loaf of bread from the oven is still a bit too hot to slice yet you can’t wait. It took the better part of a day to get the bread to this finished state, but another hour of waiting is just too painful. The serrated blade cuts through the crust and into the tender meat of the loaf that a moment ago had sounded hollow to the fingertips. The steam rolls from the knife and the heart of the slice as you spread a generous portion of salty butter on the bread that quickly turns the golden spread to a liquid and absorbs all of its goodness. You raise the slice to your nose and then take a bite – is there anything more worthy of a cook’s adoration?
 THE PERFECT COMPLEMENT TO VEGETABLES
There are some who for whatever reason are not great fans of vegetables, yet most cooks know that there are far greater opportunities to be expressive with produce than with meats, poultry and seafood. Pick a vegetable: fall squash, summer zucchini, beets, carrots, broccoli, spring asparagus, green beans, first harvest peas, or luscious corn on the cob – properly cooked they are simple, to the point, unique, and full flavored. A dollop of fresh butter and maybe a squeeze of lemon and these gifts of the earth are transformed into something truly grand.
 FINISHING A STEAK OR CHOP
The line cook working the grill knows full well that placing that slice of compound butter on top of a steak or chop is the final touch that brings out the best of every cut of meat.
 A MOTHER SAUCE OF GRAND PROPORTIONS
All chefs are aware of and usually competent at preparing the five “mother sauces”: Espagnole, Tomato, Béchamel, Veloute, and Hollandaise. The time-tested methods for making these velvety sauces is well established and methodical, but none are more sensitive and rich as clarified butter, egg yolks, salt and lemon – Sauce Hollandaise. When masking a poached egg and Canadian bacon this sauce completes one of the most revered items on any menu – Eggs Benedict. When a chef has mastered the steady stream of butter as it emulsifies with slightly warm egg yolks then he or she can rightfully hold a whisk high in the air and assume the kitchen title.
 TRANSFORMING A SAUCE TO A FINISHED MASTERPIECE
What elevates a gravy to a sauce is certainly the method of preparation and the proportions of ingredients, but it is the final stage of montee au beurre (mounting the sauce with raw butter) that gives it the rich and velvety texture and flavor of a grand sauce.
 BISCUITS AND BUTTER
Just as warm bread and butter are a match made in heaven – warm buttermilk biscuits with salty butter are even more worthy of adoration. You can’t have one without the other.
 JUST TO CLARIFY – A MOST PRECIOUS FAT FOR COOKING
Many fats used in cooking are neutral and do not impart much flavor during the process (exceptions are olive oil, peanut oil, and duck fat) – butter on the other hand can be instrumental in changing the character of a dish quite dramatically. Once the milk solids are removed (clarify), butter becomes a pure fat with a higher smoke point – perfect for sauté and poaching. In fact, although there is a fair amount of poetic license used in sauté, the process is not legitimate without that golden, rich clarified butter.
 A THOUSAND LAYERS AND COUNTING
Baking is certainly a science compared to the much more variable art of cooking and no product is more in tune with that science than laminated dough. Danish, Croissant, and Puff Pastry Dough are marvels of process and science. The layering (mille feuille) creating the thousand layers (not necessarily literal) is only possible through the use of perfectly tempered butter, chilling the dough between folds, and the systematic process of book folding the dough between rolling. Watching the baker follow these steps is only surpassed in amazement by the light buttery flavor of the finished products.
 WHAT ELSE WOULD DO A BAKED POTATO JUSTICE
Without question one of the great joys of eating comes from pulling a russet potato from a 400 degree oven, cutting through the crunchy skin and into the milky white flesh of this magnificent tuber and slathering this with loads of salted butter. Serious potato fans also know that the crunchy skin is the best part, especially with the addition of more butter.
 THE CULTURE OF BUTTER
One of the recent restaurant trends is to stock different butters for different tasks. Salted butter for most cooking, unsalted butter for pastry, and cultured butter for dining room tables. Cultured butter has the additional lactic acid incorporated during the churning process making the product a bit tangier. Butter moves from a relatively neutral buffer and complement to a dish to a condiment that stands on it’s own. Held at the right temperature – cold, but not hard, this unique and far more expensive butter becomes a signature for a special dining experience.
 CARAMELIZATION IS THE KEY
It was Chef Phil Learned at the Balsams Grand Resort who emphasized to me the importance of controlling the process of caramelization in cooking. What he was really referring to was the Maillard Reaction, which is a chemical reaction, involving the browning of proteins and carbs in a food product. This process adds sweetness and a nutty flavor to the item being caramelized. Control over the fat, in this case butter, using the right amount of heat and pan motion will maximize the positive coloring and flavor derived from caramelization.
 THE PERFECT PARTNER WITH MAPLE SYRUP
Maple syrup is a gift from nature that is only enhanced with the addition of butter. What can be better than pancakes with real maple syrup (preferably from Vermont or New York) and rich creamery butter?
 WHAT IS GRILLED CHEESE WITHOUT IT
The resurrection of grilled cheese into a true center of plate for restaurants (some featuring only grilled cheese menus) has paid well-deserved attention to the whole package. The cheese is the centerpiece, but it is the quality of bread, soaked in quality butter and slowly caramelized in a pan so that the exterior of the sandwich is crunchy, nutty and rich, that transforms a simple grilled cheese sandwich into a true thing of beauty.
 LIQUID OR SOLID, HOT OR COLD
Butter is so versatile and morphs its identity depending on its state (liquid or solid) and temperature (hot or cold). Great for cooking, fantastic for finishing, perfect as a condiment, useful as a binder (in a beurre manie as a thickener), or instrumental as a separator (in laminated dough). Few ingredients have so many uses.
 DESERVING OF IT’S OWN SHELF IN THE WALK-IN
One of the easiest ways to determine how important an ingredient might be to a chef is to look at how much shelf space is dedicated to that product. Butter is typically one of main characters in restaurants – given first touch shelf space in a cooler and designated as the only ingredient that can grace that shelf.
“The history of the world is the record of a man in quest of his daily bread and butter.”
-Hendrick Willem van Loon
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