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Butter Explosion

March 24, 2014

Hyperbole is used far too much in food writing. How many times have you read about a “flavor explosion” or something that “explodes in your mouth”? There are a host of products on supermarket shelves that promise such explosions, too. Some of what food manufacturers are able to do with science is remarkable.

Right now I’m thinking of those pretzels that recreate the mouthfeel of a juicy Buffalo wing. But even when I wrote about those I didn’t say they exploded with flavor.

For better or for worse, I take words very seriously. I think words matter. So when I tell you something is a butter explosion, you better believe it’s a butter explosion. Some of you might be thinking today’s post is about Chicken Kiev. That would be understandable, but that’s more like a burst of butter.

I want to tell you about a butter explosion.

Perhaps you remember how I’ve recently become obsessed with the idea of making an improbably difficult Indian dessert. Well, the very first step of this multi-day process is to make ghee, which is essentially a glorified clarified butter.

I’ve made it before by fastidiously following the instructions from Modernist Cuisine at Home. No, I probably didn’t have to use such a big and elaborate book for such a simple dish, but its attention to detail is compelling.

This time it didn’t quite work out so well.

After some of the water boils out of the butter and the solids are strained through cheesecloth, a pound of unsalted butter should yield a scant two cups of ghee. I ended up with less than a quarter of one cup. The rest of the butter was dripping down like rain from the inside of the stove’s hood into several golden shimmering pools covering the range. One burner was engulfed by fire. Streaks of butter cascaded down the walls. Butter splattered all over the floor. And all of my cooking tools within arms reach were thoroughly buttery.

The good news is that I wasn’t looking into the pot when it exploded, so I didn’t get a face full of boiling oil. The fire was easy to extinguish. Nobody got burned. And miraculously, despite boiling fat flying all around me, I didn’t get a drop on my clothes.

That last part is still a mystery.

What’s no longer a mystery is what went wrong. It turns out that I’m not the first experienced cook to encounter this phenomenon. The Internet is filled with other similar tales, although many involve a microwave. Man, I wish the mess had been contained to a microwave. That would have made my life so much easier.

Remember how I said the point of clarifying the butter is to remove some of the water? Well, it turns out sometimes a few water droplets can get trapped under the weight of the melted butter. And as the heat increases, they expand until… BOOM! A more technical description can be found on wikipedia for those who are interested.

I love this homey solution from Chowhound about leaving a spoon in the pan to break the surface tension. Most likely, though, I may just alter my technique so I don’t heat the butter so long. Yes, I’ll miss out on a bit of complexity in the flavor, but really I just need to get the solids out of the butter so they won’t get all toasty and change the flavor and color of my finished dishes.

This is a good wake up call to be cautious out there while cooking. Knives, fire, boiling fats, molten sugar and raw meat are rife with peril. Don’t be scared of them, but do treat them with the respect they deserve.

Hopefully, someone can learn from my mistake and can be spared another butter explosion (and the hours of resulting cleanup it demands).

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2014 10:17 am

    I have exploded butter in the microwave a few times, never on the range. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Your method sounds way too fastidious. You should get more like 3 cups of ghee from a pound. I simply melt it at a very low temperature on the gas burner and wait for it to separate so the solids rise to the top or drop to the bottom. I skim off the top solids then start to pour and stop at the point where I’m about to reach the solids in the bottom of the pan. That remaining butterish stuff still has some useful application for sauteeing but meanwhile I’ve got my ghee.

    One Indian cook I know has an even easier method. She just leaves the butter on the stove and eventually the top solids fall to the bottom and brown. At this point they’re very heavy and stable so you can pour out quite a bit of ghee before you reach them. Only downside is the butter darkens a bit; it’s no longer a golden yellow.

  2. EPT permalink
    March 24, 2014 3:10 pm

    I’ve done it very successfully in the microwave in a large Pyrex measuring cup. The key though is to cover the measuring cup with a paper towel and put a few wooden chopsticks on it for weight. You do have to monitor so it doesn’t over boil but it works very well.

  3. Pam permalink
    August 31, 2020 10:59 am

    Hi Daniel,
    Thanks so much for your blog. This butter explosion happened to me yesterday. I called the company that made the butter, looking for answers. I’ve melted butter in the past on the stove and at times have incurred a bit of sputtering. But, this time, it was definitely a full on explosion!! I was so stunned. I must have looked like a deer in the headlights of an approaching vehicle. I think I’ll just switch to olive oil…it’s less threatening! ;-)

  4. NatureGal permalink
    June 8, 2021 7:54 pm

    Amazing! I’m not the only one this has happened to as I’ve thought for decades. My Big Butter Explosion (as I’ve always called it) is as follows…

    Yep, exactly like you I was making ghee for East Indian cooking. I’d made it many times before. On the stove. But this time I did one thing different–two pounds of butter at once because hey, what a clever time saving idea. I left the room for a minute or two to multitask. Such an efficient person. That efficiency may very well have saved me from dreadful burns.

    It wasn’t the loud POP! that alarmed me, but the SPLOOOOSH!! of butter hitting the ceiling and the highly disconcerting dripping noises a second later. That progression of sounds definitely didn’t sound like something which should be heard while making ghee!

    I ran into the room, hit the butter on the floor and skidded wildly over to the stove, and not being near the stove when it blew is only a teeny bit more of a miracle than the fact that I stayed upright and didn’t have a wreck on the oily floor. Naturally my cats were quite interested in the excitement and just had to come see what was going on despite me frantically trying to shoo them away from what must have been a very tempting aroma. It was hopeless. They greedily licked their fill and then went off to other rooms with nicely greased paws while I was frantically (and futilely) trying to keep the butter lake on the countertop from dripping over the edge and into all the lower cupboards.

    Cleaning has never bothered me too much, but I definitely have my limits. Without a doubt, the mess that day and the hours and days it took to clean were never forgotten. I never again made ghee with anything more than 1/2 a pound of butter and I was always vigilant to keep watch while the liquid was separating and evaporating from the fat.

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