Compound butter: The culinary school-approved way to radically transform your meals

Butter on its own is pretty fantastic. Imagine how much better it would be if it had a flavorful friend

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published September 10, 2022 4:30PM (EDT)

Rolled Butter (Getty Images/FotografiaBasica)
Rolled Butter (Getty Images/FotografiaBasica)

For me, the first few weeks of September always signal a season of transition. Summer is fading and autumn is waiting in the wings. From my apartment window, I watch as kids — kindergarteners, I'm guessing, since they are all almost completely dwarfed by the unwieldy backpacks they carry — dutifully line up at the bus stop and, in turn, I'm compelled to turn towards more scholarly pursuits. It wouldn't be September if I didn't buy a new planner and at least contemplate going back to graduate school. 

It also happens to be the season I most need that planner; as someone who works in food, planning for the holiday season has already started in earnest. Between attempting to hold onto the last vestiges of summer (lake swims, Aperol spritzes and scouring the farmer's market for good tomatoes) and thinking about Thanksgiving, my calendar gets packed pretty quickly. 

As a result, my own cooking shifts during this season, too. 

When time is limited, I cook from my pantry more often, focusing on simple ingredients that pack big flavor with minimal effort. The ultimate example of this? Compound butter

Compound butter, as the name suggests, is simply butter cohesively combined with another ingredient. You've likely had it before, whether its lemon-infused butter served over fish or cinnamon-honey butter served with fluffy Parker House rolls. 

"Oftentimes, they're used as a finishing butter, especially when they have some fresh herbs in it," Joshua Resnick, a chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, told Salon. "It's a nice way to elevate dishes beyond just their traditional elements because you can add something really special to it, but it's in a way that's easy." 

Resnick also said that compound butters are a fantastic way to preserve fresh flavors — like from minced herbs or lemon zest — for just a little longer. 

"By storing them in butter, it allows for those ingredients to maintain their flavor for a longer period of time because you are preserving them in fat."

"By storing them in butter, it allows for those ingredients to maintain their flavor for a longer period of time because you are preserving them in fat," he said. "Think about a duck confit, for a minute. The flavors stay preserved because of the duck fat. Compound butter acts in the same manner, elongating the life of your product." 

And while many compound butters lean into acidic or herbaceous flavors, both Resnick and Edward Kim, the chef at Chicago's Asian-inspired Mott Street and Second Generation restaurants, encourage home chefs to experiment with savory compound butters, specifically miso butter. 

The combination of miso — a fermented soybean paste that's especially popular in traditional Japanese cooking — and butter imbues a dish with a one-two punch of fatty, umami flavors. Its addition to even simple items can radically transform them. 

At Mott Street, Kim serves a dish that incorporates pan-seared oyster mushrooms (which are little umami bombs in their own right!), thyme, lemon and, of course, miso butter. 

"It's so simple, but it is one of our most popular dishes," Kim said. "One comment we got recently about it was that, 'It tastes so much like Thanksgiving,' probably because of the mix of thyme and the savoriness of the mushrooms and miso. I didn't think about it when originally making that dish, but it does evoke the nostalgia of what you remember Stouffer's stuffing tasting like when you were a kid." 

Thanks to its fermented nature, miso also has a little bit of funk that can mimic aged cheese, especially when combined with higher-fat butters. For that reason, it's really fun to use as an analogue for cheese sauce. 

Resnick recalls working at New York's Tokyo Record Bar where they would serve gourmet popcorn drizzled in miso butter. 

"You get the bright, sweet corn and the cheddar-like miso," he said. "It's an umami bomb. Then you hit it with some red pepper flake, top it with a poached egg. It was just outstanding." 

Meanwhile, at Second Generation, Kim serves a lobster "mac and cheese" made using a sahm-jang cream; sahm-jang is a Korean paste made using gochujang and doenjang, a Korean fermented soybean paste that is similar to miso, but it is often saltier and funkier. 

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"I feel like it's really savory," Kim said. "It has a really great cheesy quality to it, but at the same time, it's lighter than your traditional mac and cheese." 

Kim encourages home cooks to incorporate miso butter in places where they would traditionally add a pat of butter or a sprinkle of cheese, like over plain noodles or baked potatoes. Making it is simple. He recommends treating miso like salt — a little goes a long way — and adding a teaspoon or two of water to the butter before mixing to aid in emulsification. 

"I think of adding anchovies to pasta sauce," he said. "You don't necessarily want to taste the anchovy, but it gives the sauce a little something extra. Miso butter is a way to get that 'something extra' easily when cooking at home." 

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By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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