A whiff of the exotic inspires me when preparing tea-flavored butter. A fast and easy final touch to a weeknight dish of pan-sautéed fish, seafood, and chicken, this simple adornment captures some of the spirit of yak butter tea, a mixure of strongly brewed tea, salt, and you know what. But here where the air is less rarefied, the butter is neither yak-derived (or rancid, as it traditionally is) nor the best way to moisten tsampa, the barley flour dumplings that are a staple in Himalayan diets.
Whether butter, cream, or oil, food chemistry tells us that fat is a carrier of flavor to the palate. Here, sweet, unsalted butter is the fat of choice – with their dairy sweetness, Plugra brand or cultured butter from Vermont Butter and Cheese would be my choice. Butter’s the perfect medium to capture all of tea’s flavor (without any tannic bitterness) and deliver it in a mellow sauce that is the perfect accompaniment to many center-of-the-plate proteins. You wind up with a full and satisfying taste experience as the butter melts and mingles with the pan juices.
When making tea butter, I most often reach for Yunnan or Keemun, the lightly scented and delicate black teas from China. If you venture into smoky tea territory with Lapsang Souchong – particularly good on scallops or shrimp – you will be adding a depth to foods that might otherwise be achieved on an outdoor grill, used only by the intrepid in the cooler months.
Use about one tablespoon of butter per each four-to-five-ounce serving of protein (four tablespoons will serve four). In a small saucepan, melt the butter until just liquid. Add 2 grams (or approximately 1-1/2 teaspoons) of fresh, fragrant premium whole-leaf tea per tablespoon of butter (the key to flavor is freshness so be sure that you are using only tea that is highly aromatic and butter that has no off aromas or flavors). Continue heating the mixture for about 5 minutes on the lowest possible heat setting. Remove from the heat and allow to stand for another 5 minutes or so, or until the butter is discernibly tinted by the tea leaves. Pour the mixture through a fine sieve, pressing hard on the tea leaves and then discarding them. Reserve and salt the flavored butter to taste.
At this point, you have two options. First, you may use the tea butter as is, drizzling it over the meat or seafood in the sauté pan and allowing it to mix with the pan juices exuded after the protein has been cooked. Or, you may chill it until it is firm and then, with the help of parchment paper, wax paper, or foil, coax it into a roughly round cylinder. Chill again and when fully chilled, cut the cylinder into ½-inch thick medallions and place over the meat or fish just before serving, allowing it to melt into deliciously rich rivulets on the plate.
You might also wish to try this with your favorite green and oolong teas. Let me know how things turn out.