I had a few low-risk kitchen duties delegated to me when I was around 10-12 years old. Some of these were peeling boiled potatoes, peeling sambhar onions (the worst job ever), shelling peas and making butter.
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When I was young, my family drank enough Horlicks to single-handedly meet the company’s western India annual sales target. Needless to say, we had a steady supply of empty Horlicks bottles that were used to store everything from spices to pickles. One of these bottles was a designated butter-making bottle. The layer of cream would be skimmed off the milk every day and added to this bottle, which was kept refrigerated until it was three-fourths full. A spoon of dahi (yogurt) was added to the collected cream and kept overnight, allowing it to turn into sour cream. The next morning, it was my job to make the butter.
I would add some water to the bottle, screw on the lid and shake it for seven-eight minutes, until the butter formed and floated to the top. Some days, it was effortless and some other days, the butter needed to be coaxed out by adding iced water. There was always a reward at the end of this chore. Freshly churned butter on a slice of soft Wibs bread, topped with sugar (large-sized granules with a satisfying crunch) and folded over, this was a blissful combination of soft, crunchy, creamy, sweet and tangy in each bite.
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The home-made butter would either be made into ghee or used in the making of snacks like murukku. White butter is also the favoured accompaniment to adai (a heartier cousin of the dosa, made with mixed lentils).
The liquid left after removing the butter is the OG buttermilk. This can be diluted, seasoned with a pinch of salt and drunk as chhaas or used in a dish like mor kuzhambu (kadhi).
Churning cultured cream to get butter is a fascinating process of phase inversion from an oil in water emulsion (cream) to a water in oil emulsion (butter). The end result is a network of all the fat globules coming together, held in a structure by the solid fat crystals and droplets of water trapped inside these structures.
Be it dal makhani, pav bhaji, butter chicken or popcorn, what makes buttery foods so irresistible? Fat is the best carrier of flavour. Butter is intrinsically aromatic due to the presence of short chain fatty acids and when heated, the alkanoic acids in butter get converted to methyl ketones which are responsible for added flavour.
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There’s nothing more annoying than hard fridge butter when you want to spread it on toast. Can butter be left out on the counter? The high fat content and low moisture levels are natural deterrents to bacterial contamination. The added salt in salted butter acts as a preservative. Butter degrades faster when there’s exposure to air, light and heat. Keep it wrapped in an airtight butter box and you can leave it on the counter for nearly a week, or two weeks in winters. In very hot weather, it is not recommended to leave butter out. In short, the quantity of butter you need for a week can be left out in a box and the remainder refrigerated.
I recently read about this Moroccan fermented butter called smen and I mean to give this project a try soon. Simmer butter until the solids have separated out. Filter out the liquid using a muslin-lined sieve. Stir in rock salt (1 tbsp per half kilogram of butter used). Cover and store in a cool dry place on a counter or a cupboard for a month or more. The longer this period, the stronger the flavour, said to be similar to blue cheese. It can be added to Moroccan dishes or used as a spread on toast.
GHAR KA MAKKHAN
Makes ~200g butter
1 tbsp home-made yogurt
Remove the cream to a bowl. Whisk lightly for a few seconds until uniform in consistency. Stir the yogurt well into the cream. Cover and keep aside overnight. Add around one cup water to the bowl. Using a wire whisk or a hand blender, churn the sour cream until the butter solids start separating out. Using clean fingers, move all the butter to one corner of the bowl, making it into a single lump or two-three smaller ones. Gently squeeze out all the liquid from the lumps of butter. Remove to a covered bowl and refrigerate. You could also keep this in a paneer-making container with drainage holes so the excess moisture can be drained out. Home-made butter has more moisture than store-bought, so keep it refrigerated and use it along with food or to make ghee within two-three days.
NITER KIBBEH—ETHIOPIAN GHEE WITH SPICES
Makes ~150 g
Quarter tsp turmeric
Half tsp fenugreek seeds
Half tsp cumin seeds
5-6 black peppercorns, crushed
1 green cardamom
In a heavy-bottomed pan, add all the spices to the butter. Keep the flame on medium high. Once the butter melts, allow it to simmer for 10-15 minutes until the moisture evaporates and the milk solids start separating out. These will sink to the bottom and the ghee/clarified butter on the top will be clear. You can let the milk solids turn darker for a deeper flavour profile. Or else filter out the clarified butter through a fine meshed sieve into a steel or glass container. Discard the solids with the spices. Keep refrigerated in an airtight jar. This will stay for around two months.
A spoonful of niter kibbeh can be used to finish dals, curries, to make scrambled eggs or even popcorn. You can play around with the spices to make your own version of niter kibbeh.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book, Everyday Superfoods, released recently.