Dsc_0114                                                                                                          Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Compound butter: Compound butter—whole butter mixed with aromats, seasonings and acid—is one of the more easy and satisfying sauces available to the home cook.  It’s especially good with grilled meats and fish and a smart strategy given that grilling doesn’t create, as a byproduct of the cooking, a sauce base the way braising or pan roasting do.  A compound butter can be made to pair with virtually anything, and because butter is usually on hand in the fridge, it’s a great sauce or garnish to use in a pinch.  The most common form is called beurre maitre d’ hotel, or hotel butter (parsley, lemon juice and zest, salt and pepper).  Butter mixed with shallot and fines herbes would be excellent with roast chicken, butter mixed with citrus zest would be excellent atop poached salmon, minced chipotle peppers, lime juice and cilantro on grilled steak, et cetera.  When composing compound butter, you should think of it as you would a sauce—seasoning it with salt and pepper, adding an acidic component for balance and contrast (citrus or wine, for instance) and appropriate aromatics—fresh herbs and shallot are most common.  To make a compound butter, use a rubber spatula to press and fold the seasonings and aromats into room temperature butter.  It can be served out of a ramekin but restaurant kitchens typically form the creamy butter into a log using plastic wrap, and chill it in an ice bath to maintain it’s cylindrical shape as it hardens; it can then be sliced into appealing discs when ready to use.

At the CIA in Rudy Smith’s intro to hot foods, I did one with chopped rosemary and a cabernet sauvignon for broiled lamb chops.  At the Cleveland restaurant Sans Souci, I did a standard hotel butter atop grilled salmon.  Last night, my father brought over some steaks to grill, so I made the above compound butter—a maitre d butter with some espelette pepper thrown in for some zing as well as minced shallot.  If I’d had chipotles in adobo sauce, I’d have used those.  Compound butters are quick, easy, and look beautiful as they melt over sizzling steak or grilled fish.


41 Wonderful responses to “Elements: Compound Butter”

  • suzysf

    Another great picture from Donna. I love the way the butter is melting there on the knife.

    How long can you hold a butter like that in the fridge? Does it need to be used that day or within a few days? And, is there a standard thumb as to the ratio of ingredients?

  • French Laundry at Home

    First of all — steaks on the grill in February, yum! There’s nothing better than grilling in the snow. Second, what are your thoughts on freezing compound butter? Does it hold up over a few months? I made a tarragon-shallot butter last summer and I wish I’d made more and frozen it, but I’m not sure it would’ve lasted, or tasted the same.

  • Big Red

    I know if I freeze it no matter how much I wrap it, after about a month, it comes out tasting like whatever was in the freezer. Icky. But I have been doing this forever, and not being a CIA grad, I didn’t realize that it was an official “technique”. I also like to do sweet ones too. We have a bee box, and I harvest honey twice a year. I mix in the honey and some sort of dried fruit, bluberry is great, and I have thrown in a VERY small amount of lavender,(Yes you can eat the stuff. It is best used more than sparingly, but with honey it adds that little something) and the melding of flavor is superb on a sweet swedish rye bread that my husband’s family makes, or a pancake, or muffin.
    Either way it is nice to know a dumb-ass like me can say, This is something the pros do…

  • David

    Any suggestions on how to make the lemon juice easily incorporate into the butter? I’ve always had a hard time getting them to mix properly.

  • luis

    suzysf “is there a standard thumb as to the ratio of ingredients?”

    From what passes for normal in the web suzy, you might try this for one half cup yield x2 everything for a cup.

    1/2 cup of Butter
    1 tbsp Parsley (minced)
    1 tsp Lemon juice
    1/2 tsp Salt
    1/2 tsp Pepper

  • Chennette

    I agree with suzysf – I really do love this picture. Somehow I’ve never experimented with a compound butter. How much liquid ingredient can you safely add to this?

  • ntsc

    We do a compound butter with blue-cheese for steaks, roll it into a log and freeze it. Ziplock bags seem to keep it flavor free. I have no idea how long it will last, but six weeks for sure. One thing on freezing, we put it in the deep freeze which is far colder than the side-by-side in the kitchen.

    Grilling in Feb. is nothing, try deep frying a turkey in a blizzard.

  • ruhlman

    I would think it freezes well but, yes, wrapping it first in plastic, then in foil to keep out the light, then in a zip top bag would do it.

    luis’s proportions look good, though i’d increase the lemon juice. butter is an emulsification and i imagine you can fit a lot of water in there. the butter needs to be soft and it takes a couple minutes but the butter ultimately accepts the juice or wine.

  • Bob delGrosso


    Soften the butter as you would for creaming when making cake batter. Get it to about 60 degrees. Let the lemon juice come up to the same temp. Then just whip it in.

  • Rebecca

    I’d add re ingredient ratios that some butters seem to “hold” more added liquids than others in my experience, which I figure is due to the amount of water that’s in the butter to start with. Is this true?

  • Natalie Sztern

    This is where I get stuck and it isn’t the first time and has nothing to do with dietary laws but could someone, without being fascetious, explain why you would put a pad of butter on a perfectly good steak that is being grilled or barbecued? Shouldn’t the steak (rib, porterhouse..)and it’s seasonings ie salt,pepper et al., speak for itself?

  • Darcie

    Natalie, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I find that butter on a steak helps enhance the flavor of the meat and seasonings. Perhaps it is because steak is relatively lean, and the butterfat helps distribute the flavors. It may also make the meat seem more moist.

    ntsc, we once smoked a turkey in North Dakota during a near blizzard. It sure took a lot of lump charcoal. And by we I mean my husband – I just popped out every once in awhile.

  • Dana McCauley

    One of my favorite recent experiments with compound butter is to add the flavorings for chimchurri sauce to the butter base. This blend makes a great finishing touch for steaks (espeically a rib stea) as well as for shrimp.

    One of my pals, food writer Amy Snider, ties up compound butter pats in cheeescloth so that you can rub them easily over corn on the cob. IT adds a fun touch to the corn experience and makes the butter much more easy to spread over the corn evenly.

  • e. nassar

    “This is where I get stuck and it isn’t the first time and has nothing to do with dietary laws but could someone, without being fascetious, explain why you would put a pad of butter on a perfectly good steak that is being grilled or barbecued? Shouldn’t the steak (rib, porterhouse..)and it’s seasonings ie salt,pepper et al., speak for itself?”

    It’s what I’d call gilding the Lilly. Sure a good steak, properly grilled and seasoned is enough. However, the combo of a SMALL flavored pat of butter on top of a piece of steak, especially a lean one like fillet mignon, is heavenly.

  • bob mcgee

    re: compound butter on a good steak…..I always think of compound butters, as complimentary sauces, especially on a good steak. It’s not so much an argument anout” if the steak is cooked and seasoned correctly, it shouldn’t need it” I think it has every bit as much validity as steak frites, I’m sure it doesn’t HAVE to be accompanied by bearnaise, but it sure is nice.
    Here in Oregon, when the truffles are at 10 bucks an ounce, I stock up an make as much truffles fit into a pound of butter that I can, My flatirons, and duck eggs always say thank you.

  • H. Alexander Talbot

    Try taking chunks of the frozen compound butter and putting them in a cheese grater and then grating it over roasted meats, veg, corn etc. It is also great for grating over raw fish which is then placed in the oven for a slow cook or even under a broiler. The grating method allows for a uniform dispersion of butter.

    And if you do not have a mouligrater, try using a microplane. We actually keep our cheese grater loaded in the freezer. On a like thought wave guacamole frozen in ice cube trays and then grated as the butter is truly spectacular.

  • Jesse

    The “Les Halles Cookbook” recipe for “Faux-Fillet avec Beurre Rouge” got me totally hooked on compound butter. I’m a busy software engineer, and sometimes when I get home late to make dinner, I just don’t have time, energy, or ingredients to make a complicated sauce… keeping various compound butter in the freezer assures that I always have options. Lifesavers! (And, an excellent way to preserve precious truffles.)

  • Hank

    Regarding the idea of compound butter on a steak, I have never really liked it on a good ribeye or T-bone because these cuts are pretty fatty in and of themselves.

    Now put it on a venison steak? Mmmmm…

  • soupnancy

    I love compound butters not just to sauce steak, meat or fish, but to finish sauces or even a pasta dish. The only thing I hate is getting a steak in a bistro with a rock hard disc of cold butter straight from the fridge on top -ugh.

  • Sandy

    Grating the log over game meats sounds like a terrific idea. So many herb combinations to play with…

  • Bob delGrosso

    There are too many variables to consider to answer your question with any accuracy.

    All commercial grade A butter should have the same amount of water (20%). Artisan butter can have less water but if you are referring to commercial butter chances are something else is limiting how much liquid you can add.

    Likely culprits are

    >dramatically dissimilar temps (butter and liquid should be about the same temp)

    > Temps that are too low or too high. Trying to add very cold liquid to very cold butter is bad news. Likewise very hot butter and very hot liquid won’t work well either

    > Liquid that is too acidic will make problems (I can’t explain why here. Not enough space.)

    Sorry I cannot be more specific. Really I need to see what you are doing to give you the best answer.

  • suzysf

    Following the advice above (thank you, Luis and Michael), I made this and used it on the evenings dinner of simply cooked chicken breast and fresh carrots. I seared the chicken breast and finished them in the oven, putting the butter on top, just before serving. The carrots I cut at an angle and steamed through, after draining off the little bit of water, I added about a tblsp of brown sugar and the compound butter. I finished them with some fresh parsley. It was wonderful! Yet another reason why I so love these posts from the book.

  • Shelley

    Recently I bought a FoodSaver gadget so I could vacuum-seal stuff for my new deep freezer. That was the rationalization, anyway. Secretly, I also wanted to use it to try to use “sous vide” as a cooking technique.*

    So there I am in the kitchen, pondering what kind of compound butter I would create to pack with chicken breasts in my first low-tech stovetop attempt at sous vide, when my nine-year-old asks if she can help cook dinner.

    After I explain what a compound butter is and what we’re going to do with it, she dashes to the pantry and pulls out her favorite spice blend: Penzey’s Pizza Seasoning. I don’t want to discourage my favorite aspiring chef, so what the heck? We made a pizza-inspired compound butter and somehow it turned out great.

    (The chicken was beautifully moist and intensely flavored after our sous vide run, but I did sprinkle it with breadcrumbs and run it under the broiler to give it some crunch factor. Just thought you should know.)

    Is there a moral to this story? Maybe it’s to let loose and have more fun with your butter.

    *See ELEMENTS, page 221. ;]

  • Heidi

    Fantastic photo. Any chance of getting Donna to comment on what type of camera, lens and other she uses?

  • Natalie Sztern

    Thanky’all and H. Alexander I shall first try out ur suggestion….using a microplane for grating and then further to a pat. Actually I never looked at it like making a sauce…”soupnancy” am I right when I make the statement that in Montreal it is not a habit for a steakhouse to serve steak with butter of any kind, unless it specifically calls for a sauce like a pepper sauce….gibby’s,moishe’s, rib n reef, queue de cheval – i have eaten steak there many times but I have never had it served with any compound butter on top and if it is not a ribsteak then it is a filet mignon…soupnancy u would know if i am right, unless it is a french-canadian mode d’emploi?

  • Sarah

    I love compound butters so much. They are such a simple way to add a touch of elegance and a burst of flavor to something as simple as a pork chop. I love them!

  • Dick Black

    I too have eaten steak in all of Montreal’s better steakjoints as well as some of Toronto’s (Barberians, Bigliardi’s ) and they don’t serve compound butters with the steaks either.

    It must be a USA thing.

    Are you trying to enhance the beef flavour of the steak ? I dunno.

  • White On Rice Couple

    Every year when corn is in season, we bar-b-que a ton of it for our guests. Right along the condiment table is a selection of about 4-5 different compound butters to spread on the hot, roasted corn. Yummy! The problem with it is that everyone wants to try each butter , so we have to have EXTRA corn. Your photograph is beautiful!

  • Andy

    Heidi, the EXIF data in the photo says it was taken with a Nikon D200, ISO 100, manual exposure. Hope that helps.

  • ruhlman

    donna’s been busy but just asked her details. correct, she uses a Nikon D200 and uses her 55 macro lens a lot and is also especially fond of her 85mm 1.4 lens. she spends a good deal of time lighting her shots. I should take a picture of her shooting one of these shots.

  • ruhlman

    and she just added that she feels bad for not answering, is very grateful for all the good comments and will be happy to answer other questions!

  • Dick Black

    Why thanks Bob. Good to have another expert on board here at Michaels blog. Hope to read more of your sage advice soon.

  • gfweb

    Does the word “aromats” really need to exist? I know its picky, but the standard word ‘aromatics’ is a perfectly good one and does a better job of communication, I think.

  • Cape Cathy

    “First of all — steaks on the grill in February, yum! There’s nothing better than grilling in the snow. ”

    Standing in the snow for 5 minutes beats scrubbing a broiler for 20 any day!

  • Natalie Sztern

    I want Donna to start giving tutorials on her own website requiring homework!!! I will start with Lesson 1….how much for the first lesson?

  • Carole

    Loved your comments on So Beach
    Butter compound does make a difference but have never tried all of your variations..very helpful…everyone should have a fresh herb garden on their kitchen window sill..
    Any thoughts on where you would like to eat in the Palm Beaches?