Smooth and golden, gilding anything it touches with the promise of flavour, one dab of butter can transform a dish, making bhurji, paratha, dosa, mashed potato and toast taste like never before. Even simple steamed vegetables can take on new dimensions.
Think, then, what butter infused with great seasonings will do. It’s not that hard to imagine, because fat carries flavour. That is one reason we temper Indian food with tadkas. The oil or ghee is infused with volatile oils from the spices, and carries them through the whole dish.
Flavoured butters can add oomph to any meal. Continental cuisine calls them “compound butters” and they are often served with grilled meat, seafood and vegetables as an alternative to a sauce. Available in both savoury and sweet varieties, they can also be added to sauces to finish them, mixed into pasta and rice to add flavour or served over warm puddings and desserts.
Making a compound butter is simple. Unsalted butter works best, with cooks adding salt to taste, but any butter or butter substitute will work. Allow the butter to soften at room temperature and then stir in the ingredients of your choice. Next, refrigerate the butter.
For more robust flavours such as mixed spices or garlic, I lightly sauté the ingredients in a dab of butter, cool them and then stir into the rest of the butter. You should use up compound butters within a few days of making them. Even if you do freeze your butter, be sure to use it within a month, using an acid like lemon in the compound butter to help preserve it.
As for flavourings, your imagination is the only limit. Lemon-and-dill butter goes well with many fish dishes while tarragon compound butter is a classic French garnish. Herbs and spices are the easiest options because they are easily available, but you can also add vegetables and even fruit. Coriander, parsley, chillies, toasted spices, spice mixes, citrus zest, lime, garlic, mustard and even dried mushrooms and tomatoes all make good flavourings.
I like to use butter infused with lemon zest and green chilli to garnish rasam or a clear, light chicken soup. Garlic-and-coriander butter adds new flavours to good old hot parathas and dosas. And I often toss hot-peeled potatoes in butter infused with red chilli and garam masala for a quick snack.
These days, with green peppercorns and mango ginger in season, I like doing butters using them. The very nature of this condiment allows delicate flavours, such as the green-ness of the peppercorns or the subtle mango flavours of mango ginger, to hold their own.
Sweeter compound butters such as honey butters or fruit-flavoured butters make great accompaniments to morning toast, biscuits and hot puddings and pies.
You can also replace regular butter with these butters in your favourite baked dishes. In such cases, flavour the butter with sweeter spices such as cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and cloves. You can stir in a little bit of jam too, to make a fruity butter that will sweeten dalia or porridge.
I like to get creative with the form of my flavoured butters too. I often freeze them into logs or blocks for easy slicing. You can also roll them into small balls or freeze them in a flat tray to be cut into shapes with a cookie cutter for attractive garnishing.
Or freeze them in small moulds, decorating them with pretty combinations of the ingredients that have gone into them. This also makes it convenient to identify the flavours later on.
Flavoured, moulded and garnished butter makes a great gift too. Wrap it up in butter paper or just carry it over in a pretty bowl.
(Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal is an author, blogger and food consultant. Look out for Spice Route on the first Sunday of every month)