Merguez sausage and Israeli couscous with smen
Merguez sausage and Israeli couscous with smen Credit: Julia Thiel

The Chef: Joseph Rose (Lockwood)
The Challengers:
Thomas Rice and Kurt Guzowski (Tete Charcuterie)

The Ingredient: Smen

Joseph Rose (Lockwood) hadn’t heard of smen, a fermented butter that’s common in North Africa and the Middle East, before Thomas Rice and Kurt Guzowski (Tete Charcuterie) challenged him with it. But he did happen to have some on hand. Unbeknownst to Rose, one of his chefs had been experimenting with fermenting smen in the Lockwood kitchen for the past five weeks, and he offered some up for Rose to use.

Smen is traditionally made from goat butter, sheep butter, or a combination of the two that’s been aged between one and four months—though it can be kept much longer. Berber farmers in Morocco reportedly bury a jar of smen when a daughter is born and dig it up on her wedding day to season the food served at the celebration. What Rose used was made from cow’s milk butter (just like you’d buy at the grocery store, he said) and infused with the traditional salt and oregano, both of which help to preserve it. Smen is often clarified before it’s fermented, but Rose clarified it afterward—it wasn’t totally necessary, he said, but he prefers clarified butter.

Smen smells a lot like blue cheese, Rose said—and tastes like it too, though the flavor is less intense than the aroma. “It’s got a little bit of a funk to it, in a good way. . . . It’s got earthiness, herbaceousness, but you still pick up the funk more than that.” He doesn’t dislike the taste—but he does prefer regular butter.

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Though Rose had smen that was already fermented, he also demonstrated how to make it: he steeped dried oregano in hot water to make an infusion, then cooled it, strained it, and kneaded it into a pound and a half of softened butter, along with a tablespoon of salt. Once it had been worked in, he strained the butter through cheesecloth to remove any excess water, then put it into jars to ferment.

When he was deciding what to make with smen, Rose said, he treated it the way he would a compound butter—like a flavoring agent. He thought about North African and Moroccan flavors and decided to use a merguez sausage that he currently has on the menu at the restaurant, served with Israeli couscous, harissa, and cucumber-yogurt sauce. Smen went into everything except the yogurt: he panfried the sausage and precooked couscous in it before adding currants, golden raisins, and roasted cashew pieces to the couscous. The harissa consisted of roasted red peppers, diced fresh tomatoes, olive oil, smen, cumin, cilantro, and sumac; the yogurt sauce of Greek yogurt with cucumber, lemon juice, and lemon segments.

Rose plated everything together and after trying it said that the smen gave the dish a “different characteristic. You can definitely taste it in the couscous, you can get a little bit from the sausage.” He didn’t think his patrons would be very receptive to fermented butter, but said he was still interested in experimenting further. “I’ll probably play with it more, see what happens. But it’s not bad for a first attempt.”

Who’s next:

Chris Teixeira of West Town Bakery, working with black cumin. “It’s got a funky, kind of pungent and bitter smell—a weird aroma,” Rose said. It’s used pretty much exclusively in savory applications, according to Rose, so he wanted to see what a pastry chef would do with it.