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Butter Believe It

Chef Ed Lee's compound butter is the best thing we've ever put on steak
The Best Compound Butter for Steak
Photo: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention for dedicated chefs.

When a vegetarian guest with an interest in Korean food made a reservation at Ed Lee’s 610 Magnolia in Louisville, the chef realized something “very sad” about the idea of never experiencing kalbi, the sweet-spicy-salty combination he most enjoys in Korean barbecue.

“I was kind of messing around in the kitchen and thought, 'Just because you can’t eat beef doesn’t mean you should be deprived of the kalbi sauce,'” Lee says. But he quickly learned that simply marinating or basting vegetables in the combination of soy, ginger, chiles, sugar and sesame oil alone wouldn’t work: “It’s almost too strong that way,” he says, explaining that by the end, “you just taste soy.” Experimenting further, he found an ideal vessel in compound butter.

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First, he warms a combination of soy sauce, brown and white sugars, and sesame oil. Then, he pulses fresh garlic, ginger, scallions and dried chile flakes in a food processor, adding softened butter and the warm liquid until fully incorporated. Chilled into logs, the combination packs a punch of kalbi flavor with considerable nuance (see the recipe).

“The kalbi butter instantly hits you with flavor,” he describes. “Your mouth feels coated in the butter, and then you taste a balanced hit of salt, spice, sweet and nuttiness.” He topped roast vegetables with the butter, and “the customer loved the dish,” he says. “The funny thing is that then we put it on steak—and it was perfect! We primarily put it on steak now.”

Before you start putting this on everything, which, trust us, you're bound to do, here's a general tip on using compound butter.

General Compound Butter Usages

“It’s important to remember that this is a compound butter,” Lee warns, meaning that in order for all of the ingredients to work well together, it shouldn’t be applied cold from the fridge into hot things like soups or stir-fries, because all the good stuff will melt out and separate. “This is supposed to melt slowly on top of your food and become the sauce,” he explains. So to start, think of using the room-temperature butter on top of any dish that needs a spicy-salty kick of flavor.

Check out a few of Lee’s favorite ways for vegetarians and carnivores alike to get the best out of his flavorful secret weapon.

① Breakfast

“American breakfasts tend to be on the bland side. If you’re looking for a punch of flavor with your breakfast, it perfectly moistens dry toast,” or complements the richness of eggs and roast potatoes, Lee says. Lightly cook your eggs sunny-side up or over easy (to keep that fatty yolk ready), plate alongside some roast potatoes and dollop a little compound butter on the eggs at the very last minute. “You’re going to want some toast to spoon up in the butter,” he warns. “It’s substituting regular butter with something more intense.”

② The Original Roast Root Vegetable Medley

Cut a mixture of turnips, sweet potatoes, golden beets, parsnips and cauliflower into same-sized pieces. Toss them in a pan with oil, salt, and pepper, and roast them until slightly charred and soft throughout. Set on a platter—maybe top with shaved fennel for a hint of anise or a medley of fresh herbs like parsley and tarragon—then add a dollop of the kalbi butter so that the warmth of the vegetables slowly melts the butter into a sauce.

“The saltiness and the spiciness of the butter harmonizes with the sweetness of the roasted vegetables,” Lee explains. “Even in Korean food, we want to temper sweet things with salty. The butter itself is a great way to bridge everything together, but the spiciness offsets the sweet and makes it more balanced.”

③ Serious Rib Eye

Sear a rib eye with a thick peppercorn crust, take it out of the pan, let it rest, slice it, and then dollop some of the butter on top right before serving. “That way you get some of the textured butter with each bite. There’s something about the spice that gets mirrored in the peppercorns, balancing the nuttiness of the sesame and the saltiness in the soy.”

④ Dessert! Spicy Fried Churros!

Lee’s a big fan of churros, but not the supersweet chocolate dipping sauce that usually comes with them, which, he feels, competes with the delicate cinnamon fragrance of a well-made pastry. So, he dusts a little extra sugar on the churros and then uses the butter straight up as a dipping sauce for a sweet dessert balanced with spice and heat.

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