Over the past several years, fermented foods of all kinds have seen a major rise in popularity, from drinks like kombucha to condiments like kimchi to breads like sourdough. Now our favorite fat is next in line to receive a lacto-fermented face-lift.
Chefs around the country have been serving cultured butter, known as smen in Morocco, with their bread service or to finish dishes. At Tête in Chicago, chefs Kurt Guzowski and Thomas Rice make theirs by creating a slurry of water, salt, thyme, oregano and butter, then letting it ferment at room temperature for four to eight weeks. They serve the creamy herbed butter atop their Spring Cocotte, a rainbow of more than 40 seasonal vegetables including ramps, artichokes, hakurei turnips and fava beans.
At Roberta's in Brooklyn, the kitchen whisks together house-made yogurt with cream from Battenkill Valley Creamery in Upstate New York. "The most important thing with any butter is the quality of the cream, since the fat is where all the flavor is," lead baker Nina Subhas says. The mixture cultures for 24 hours before it's churned into butter, rinsed with water and seasoned with Maldon sea salt. The finished product is served as a bread-and-butter course with house-made batard.
Chef Todd Kelly of Orchids in Cincinnati says, "We were in the process of changing our bread accompaniments, and I was reading an old cookbook that referenced a sauce being finished with tangy butter." He experimented with several methods and ingredients to make his fermented butter, which arrives with bread service. After trying several European-style high-fat butters, he decided to make his butter in-house in order to control its acidity. He played with different ratios of heavy cream, yogurt and buttermilk, tweaking culture times using a pH meter, which can be found at most homebrew supply stores.
The tangy result is served with three varieties of house-made bread, which recently has meant caraway- and fennel-spiced whole wheat, a crispy Parmesan-and-caper grissino, and a thyme-and-sage brioche baked with rooftop-grown herbs.
"In our kitchens, we try to make as many products as we can," Kelly says. "There's always a lot of trial and error when we're starting a new project, so it's a great way to keep the conversation about food interesting among our team."
How to Make Cultured Butter
Sound difficult? It's not. The process, and resulting smen, is smooth as...well, you know what.
First, mix one quart of heavy whipping cream and a quarter cup of cultured buttermilk in a bowl. Cover and store at about 70 degrees (in a dark, cool area of your kitchen) for 36 hours.
Next, refrigerate the mixture until it's cold to the touch (about 55 degrees). Place it in the chilled bowl of a standing mixer and whip on high speed until it separates. Strain off the buttermilk and reserve it for for another use.
Place the butter in a cheesecloth and continue to strain out any excess buttermilk. Knead the butter in ice-cold water until it runs clear, then mix in one teaspoon of salt. Remove the butter from the ice water and pat it dry with paper towels. Wrap it in wax paper and refrigerate until you're ready to slather it all over warm bread or whatever else you please.
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