If you’ve never had the pleasure of tasting a creamy and crunchy scoop of butter pecan ice cream, we want you to stop reading and go grab yourself a scoop. Then, enjoy the rest of this article, refilling your bowl as needed.
Thinking back to childhood, butter pecan didn’t exactly sound like a satisfying flavor. Raise your hand if you ever pictured pecans dripping in melted butter before getting thrust into a vat of ice cream. Just us? The truth of the matter is that unless you have a distinct description for the flavor of pecans and their nutty counterparts, it’s actually pretty tough to answer the “what is butter pecan?” question.
Simply put, butter pecan is a flavor that merges the nutty notes of pecan with rich butter and a hint of sweet vanilla extract. The distinctive flavor of the pecan is hard to pinpoint – even for experts – but is perhaps best described as having sweet, fat, and roasted undertones. Pecans, in particular, share an octalactone aroma compound with the coconut. When combined with butter and vanilla extract, the butter pecan profile is quite distinctive.
A key component to the butter pecan cooking process is actually roasting the pecans in butter before incorporating into your recipe, which is most likely going to be homemade butter pecan ice cream. By the way, if you are looking for a good one, try this recipe from AllRecipes.com! Some recipes will call for you to roast the pecans with both butter and sugar first – sugar is going to be added at some point during the ice cream making process, but the foundation is based upon the butter roasting step. Don’t forget that pure vanilla extract adds a bit of sweetness to any dish as well.
Oh, pecans. These little, golden nuggets of tasty goodness have become the central component of so many baked goods that it really does require a library, charts, and graphs to outline the relationship of pecans and candies to one another. Add to this the concept that the flavor of pecans is difficult to define, and we have to just trust that pecans will go with almost anything, right?
If you’re from the American South; more specifically, New Orleans, chances are you are quite familiar with praline candies. The praline candy was originally French (shocker!) and was really a brittle candy that included almonds, sugar, and butter/milk solids. The modern version that is associated with New Orleans-style candies produces a body that is more fudgy and caramel in nature and substitutes almonds with pecans (McGee 688-9).
The primary difference between butter pecan and pecan praline, then, is the fact that butter pecan is really focused on the delicate balance of pecan flavors with the richness of butter and then the incorporation into other foods like ice cream. Pecan praline, on the other hand, is really a sugary confection that is a candy in and of itself. The sugary sweetness is pulled to the forefront in pralines, while butter pecan celebrates the balance of sweet and roast-y toast-y. (That’s a food term, right?)
Speaking of butter pecan ice cream recipes, when exactly did it rise in popularity? There is not a specific date to cite – recipes can be tricky that way – but consider the fact that the first known European references to “ice cream” date back to the 1600s, 1672 to be exact. The French are credited with creating a creamier version of ice cream that was also combined with nuts and other flavors around the time of the American Revolution. And, ice cream production was more widespread by the mid-late 1800s (McGee 40). The best estimation for the evolution of butter pecan ice cream in particular would be the late 1800s to early 1900s, when recipes and flavor preferences were cited in articles.
It is always best to keep things simple! We like toasting the pecans – or pecan pieces – in butter (1 tbsp per ½ cup) for about 5 -7 minutes on medium-high heat. Remove from heat before the pecans start to burn. What makes pecans so flavorful, but also fragile, is their high oil content. This means that the butter is just added for flavor (you can toast them without added oil or butter just fine DUE to their high oil content) and you don’t want them to turn dark brown. A light toasting is perfect to unleash their nutty goodness. Official term right there, friends. Bonus points if you use your cast iron skillet – though any skillet is fine!
For a more candied butter pecan flavor, add a little light brown sugar (a tablespoon or so per cup of pecans) and teaspoon of pure vanilla extract. Keep in mind that if you are making these for an ice cream recipe, you will be adding more sugar to the ice cream mixture. Therefore, a hint of sugar goes a long way…and the vanilla extract will add that subtle hint of sweetness, too. If you’re not a brown sugar fan, you can use regular, granulated sugar. The sugar needs to not overpower the butter and pecan flavors.
We suggest a few of these experimental recipes to really get you in the butter pecan spirit!
Not interested in making your own butter pecan ice cream? We are fans of Breyer’s, but several years ago Consumer Reports determined the most popular butter pecan ice creams are: Haagen-Dazs, Walmart’s Great Value brand, Blue Bunny, and Turkey Hill – in that order. What are your favorites?
While our Mammoth pecan halves are a fan favorite for bakers, we are proud to offer an organic Elliott pecan variety that we think would make your butter pecan recipes even more decadent. Elliotts have a higher oil content and delicious flavor that is difficult to beat. We can’t wait to see what you create!
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