Butter was a popular form of fat consumption in the developed world until the 1960s, when it quickly fell victim to worries of congested arteries and large bodies. In France, butter consumption also decreased during the last half of the twentieth century,1 but in 1998, annual per capita consumption was still much higher than most other countries — 18.3 pounds versus 4.4 in the United States, 6.4 in England, and 1.5 in Japan.2,3

Maybe this decrease in butter consumption is why one popular way of consuming butter, beurre composé, has all but disappeared from use in France. Beurre composé, or compound butter, was common in France and in French restaurants in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. Today, it is rarely found. This is unfortunate.

Escoffier described many different types of beurre composés, including flavored butters used to finish sauces, flavored butters used as part of canapé preparation, and flavored butters melted over dishes in lieu of a separate sauce. This last form is the subject of this article.

Recipes for beurre composé seem to be constructed for restaurant use rather than for use in the home. The nature of a beurre composé is a combination of large quantities of butter mixed with relatively small quantities of flavorings. In recipes, the butter quantity is often given as 250 grams (about half a pound) up to a full kilo (over two pounds) — quantities too large for home application since a single serving may use only 15 to 25 grams of butter. The recipes accompanying this article are all designed to produce enough finished product for two large or four small servings.

In modern restaurants, the flavoring ingredients, as well as the final mixture, would be prepared with a food processor. In Escoffier’s day, a mortar and pestle was used. This is impractical in the home because the quantities required are too small for even the smallest processor bowl. In the home, the solid flavorings are hand minced until a puree is produced, and depending on the recipe, the puree may be further smoothed by forcing the mixture through a fine sieve.

All beurre composés start with butter at about 70 °F (21 °C). The butter is worked with a spatula to form a pommade. This is similar to creaming butter for use in a cake. The creamed butter is then combined with the remaining ingredients to form the completed beurre composé.

When made in large quantities in a restaurant, the beurre composé is formed into a sausage shape by wrapping the butter in a piece of paper or film, rolling it tightly, and twisting the ends to fill out the shape. The whole package is chilled until the butter is solid. The “sausage” is then sliced with a warm knife to make individual servings. Once again, this is not possible when making small quantities. Instead, the butter is flattened between two pieces of parchment paper until it is an even thickness, usually about 3 mm (1/8 inch). The whole package is then refrigerated to harden the butter. The beurre composé can be used as is by simply peeling off the paper, or pieces can be cut from the butter using a knife or decorative cutters. If the beurre composé begins to soften while the pieces are being cut, the whole package is returned to the refrigerator for a few minutes to harden the butter again. Alternately, portions of the butter can be rolled or scooped into balls, chilled, and cut in half for serving — the flat surface keeps the beurre composé from rolling off the food while serving. Although each of us has been instructed by our parents not to play with our food, beurre composé provides an opportunity to play and be creative.

The beurre composés in this article are intended to be served with hot foods. When the butter melts, the beurre composé becomes a sauce for the supporting ingredient. Rather than serve a piece of cold, hard beurre composé on a piece of warm food just at serving time, place the main ingredient on a warmed serving plate, add the beurre composé, and cover the plate for a minute or two to partially melt it. If the supporting, hot ingredient is not hot enough to melt the butter, place the whole plate under a broiler until the butter starts to melt. If left to sit too long, the beurre composé will melt fully and its shape will be lost.

The recipes provided with this article have been adapted from Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire, a couple editions of Larousse Gastronomique, and a French cooking magazine or two. As I researched recipes, I found that each source contained essentially the same recipes and same descriptions. I was surprised that I didn’t find beurre composé recipes in more places, but then again, beurre composé is out of fashion. Since the preparation of all beurre composés are about the same, the recipes are presented solely as ingredient lists. Prepare the butters as described above. (To access the recipes, click on the illustration above.)

Beurre composés provide a simple, make ahead alternative to sauces. Besides being decorative, they easily enhance the flavor of the main ingredient. And nowadays they’re quite unique.

1. Service de Presse et Relations Publiques.
2. Japan Dairy Council.
3. The butter consumption in the United States peaked in 1933 when the annual per capita intake was 18 pounds. By 1960, consumption was down to just over 6 pounds per capita, and by 1997 it was barely 3 pounds. In the 1960 to 1997 time period, margarine consumption dropped by 8% and lard consumption by 37%. During that same time span, shortening consumption rose by 66% and edible oils by 159%. Source: S Sanford, J Allshouse. Have we turned the corner on fat consumption?, in Food Review, USDA, September-December 1998, page 12-17.

© 2003 Peter Hertzmann, Inc. All rights reserved.