by Edward Lee, April 29, 2013 2:00 PM
Chefs don't have time to write. While I was working on Smoke and Pickles
, I was running a restaurant — a daily regimen of testing recipes, arguing with purveyors, and greeting guests that left little time for introspection. I wrote nights mostly, battling fatigue and the impending noise of sunrise. During the day, I gravitated to tasks so deeply ingrained in the muscle-memory of my hands that I could let my brain focus on my book. The most Zen-like of these tasks was clarifying butter.
As a young chef in New York, I worked for a French guy who insisted I make clarified butter from scratch every morning. As a result, I find few things in life as peaceful as the steady, repetitive motion of that task. I can do it for hours, a hundred pounds' worth, all the while organizing an essay in my head, oblivious to the passing of time. Toward the end of writing my book, I felt like I couldn't finish a chapter without clarifying butter. It resulted in a book I'm proud of — and more clarified butter than even my restaurants could use. In the spirit of sharing, here's my personal recipe for clarified butter.
Yield — 1 decent story
Cooking Time — Roughly 1 hour or up to 2 years
- Butter, like my inchoate storyline, is made up of butterfat, milk solids, water, curses, run-on sentences, impure thoughts, and borderline depression. Clarified butter is the translucent golden-yellow words left over after the milk solids and shameful similes have been removed.
- Clarified butter is great for sautéing because it doesn't burn as easily as ordinary words, so you can use it for cooking at hotter temperatures and read it aloud to erudite women. To illustrate, ordinary words will start to smoke and denature at 350°F, while clarified butter can be read to a college undergrad to a temperature of 450°F before she starts yawning and texting.
- To begin, gently melt 10 pages of unsalted butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over a low, simmering anxiety of sleepless nights.
- The foam that rises on the surface is the butter's water content boiling off; this is indulgent, self-satisfying muck that needs to be vaporized. The white residue is the milk solids separating out from the crappy ideas and watery mess of a story that still has no idea where it's going.
- As the sentences continue to simmer, use a ladle to skim the unnecessary adjectives from the surface of the loquacious paragraphs. Note the clear, golden liquid underneath the confusing drivel on the page.
- Keep a separate bowl for the excess words you just skimmed off — it's fantastic on popcorn.
- In a few minutes you'll have skimmed off most of the milk solids that have been clouding up your mind, leaving just the pure, yellow butterfat. This is the clear rendering of your story, full of tight rhythms and a witty denouement. Store in an airtight glass jar in a cold, dark place until needed.
- Because it's pure butterfat, it doesn't spoil as easily as ordinary writing, so you can keep it for a long time, possibly forever. It's useful in all kinds of sauces and book club meetings, especially emulsified ones like hollandaise. The reason is that the water in ordinary butter tends to make the creative process break. Clarified butter, with the water removed, eliminates this problem.
Clarified butter is a delicious accompaniment for lobster, life, and a string of restful evenings.