I’m starting a club. A ghee club. It will be open to any who love and appreciate ghee and clarified butter.
If you’re asking, “What is ghee? What is clarified butter?”, don’t worry. You’ll want to join the club once you’ve read this post.
To start, clarified butter is butter melted down so that the milk solids separate out and settle at the bottom of the pan, leaving behind a golden liquid that looks more or less clear when melted. When cooking with butter, the milk solids are what burn first. Removing those solids creates a denser “butter” with a higher smoke point*. I’ve found varied information on butter and clarified butter smoke points, but I feel comfortable saying that butter smokes by 350 degrees while clarified butter doesn’t smoke before 425, and it could go higher depending on the purity and quality of the clarified butter. This higher smoke point makes it perfect for sauteing and frying.
Ghee goes one step further than clarified butter and brings the temperature of the butter from 190 degrees to 250 degrees so that the milk solids that have settled at the bottom of the pan begin to caramelize somewhat, creating nuttier and more complex flavors as well as generating anti-oxidant compounds that delay the butter going rancid (and help your body get rid of dangerous free radicals**). Ghee originated in India where this delayed rancidity would have been especially valuable in a place featuring intense heat and no refrigeration. Traditionally ghee, which means “bright” in Sanskrit, is made with soured or cultured water-buffalo milk (which is also responsible for the divine mozzarella di bufala – why do we not have water-buffalo here in the U.S.?).However, it can be made at home with unsalted butter for your regular enjoyment and use.
My last compelling argument for joining the ghee club? If you’re not already sold on ghee, consider that both the milk sugar lactose and the milk protein casein, one of the most difficult proteins for the body to digest, are removed when the milk solids are removed, rendering ghee digestible to even those with extreme dairy intolerance.
On to the actual process! Clarified Butter (CB) and ghee should both be made slowly at a low temperature to prevent burning of the milk solids which would ruin the flavor. First, start with a heavy-bottomed pan not significantly larger than the quantity of butter – it’s hard to let milk solids settle if the layer of butter in the pan is too thin. The quantity is up to you – I do one pound of butter at a time which yields about 2/3 a pint of ghee which I keep in a glass pint jar in the fridge.
Second, the butter can be melted down on the stove or it can be done in the oven. If you’re in a hurry and can stand at the stove for 20 minutes I would do the stove-top process. Otherwise my preference is to put a pound of butter in my 4-quart pot and stick that in the oven at 225 degrees and check on it hourly.
Third, once the butter has melted down and the solids begin to separate out and water begins to evaporate, some impurities will rise to the surface as foam and you should skim those off. Once the milk solids have settled , you need to decide if you’re done or if you’d like to keep going to ghee. If you’re done, then hurray, take it off the heat! And skip to the next paragraph. Otherwise, keep a’cookin’. And hear my confession. I’m not actually certain I’ve ever made “real” ghee. I’ve cooked the butter down for up to 4 hours and definitely smelled a lovely aromatic nuttiness. But I have never temped the butter (which should reach 250) so I’m not 100% certain that I’ve made the real thing. As the founding member of the ghee club I will be using ghee regularly so I should have more details and knowledge to share in a few months. For now, I recommend just using your eyes and nose and a little common culinary sense to produce something along the CB-ghee spectrum that pleases you and meets your needs.
Last step, you’ll need to separate the CB from the milk solids and you can do this by (a) pouring it through a strainer lined with several layers of cheesecloth; (b) let the solids settle and pour most as much of the CB off as you can; or (c) refrigerate and separate once the butter has hardened. I usually just pour off as much the CB/ghee as I can and leave a bit of the melted butter behind in the milk solids. I’m content to do this because I rarely have good luck pouring through strainers and because I save the milk solids and use them for baking so I’m not wasting anything anyways (side note, I haven’t tried it but I’ve heard the milk solids are great on popcorn!). One important note – the milk solids are what contain the protein casein so if you are using CB/ghee for digestive reasons it is worth nailing down a good straining technique. And any remaining water will be apparent once the CB/ghee is refrigerated – it will be below the solid ghee and will still be a liquid. I continue to use this, but the water is what contains the sugar lactose. So again, if you are using CB/ghee for digestive reasons then I would be careful to not use that water – it might be worthwhile to use a wide-mouthed glass jar or something that will allow you to “pop” the solid ghee right off of the water.
Now that you have your delicious ghee, here are a couple of fun ideas….
Blinis, crepes, or pancakes cooked in ghee! This is nice for a thin thin batter so you can cook them quickly on a hot pan. Make thin pancakes or crepes for breakfast or dinner, or cook the blini in an appetizer size for your next party. Top with yogurt and smoked salmon. Or fill your crepe with ham and gruyere cheese. Or make up a berry topping with whipped cream for Sunday morning pancakes. Endless options.
But my new favorite thing to cook with ghee? Pan-fried cakes of whatever’s on hand in the fridge. I made tasty quinoa-pesto cakes the other night and they were a huge hit with my boys. I did not, of course, follow a recipe but here’s what I did more or less:
- 1 1/2 c cooked quinoa
- 1 egg yolk
- 1/4 c coarse cornmeal (organic, heirloom, stone-ground, GMO-free:))
- arugula pesto – deliciously salty and garlicky so no additional seasoning required
- mix ’em up and fry ’em up in ghee!
Pan-fried cakes are a great way to use leftover beans and grains that are already cooked and begging for a purpose. Throw in some cheese, some grated veggies like summer squash or new carrots and beets, and something dry like flour or cornmeal. Oh, and don’t forget the ghee.
Welcome to the club.
*Smoke points and why we care: smoke points are where the oil starts to break down and literally smokes. Once it does this, it starts to release carcinogens and it also starts to taste burnt and yucky. Those are both huge downers in my book. Check out these links for a comprehensive discussion of cooking oils (FAQ on fats and oils; the skinny on fats; cooking for engineers smoke point – this last one does not include CB or ghee in its list but it does have an excellent link to its page on clarified butter at the bottom of the fats and oils list). I suggest perusing and deciding on a few key high-quality oils to keep in your kitchen, one or two for using fresh (I use olive oil), one or two for baking (I use coconut oil and butter), and one or two for pan-cooking (I use ghee and coconut oil). I haven’t ever done deep-fat frying at home but when I eventually start in order to satisfy doughnut cravings and to make tempura veggies I’ll use lard.
**Free radicals are unstable oxygen molecules that come about from myriad things, including oxidized foods that have gone rancid, environmental pollutants, cigarette smoke… many culprits. I’m unclear on the precise chemistry, but it involves the free radical molecule searching for stability and finding it by basically destabilizing other molecules which then can lead to all kinds of damage, including DNA disruption. Anti-oxidants neutralize the free radicals. Check here for an easy to understand primer on the topic and some anti-oxidant-rich food suggestions!
And if you’ve made it this far you’re clearly very intrigued by this topic, so check out this blog post and the comments regarding the best ghee purchases (if you’re not inspired to make your own) and whether or not you can actually find real ghee anymore as it must be made with fermented milk. Huh. Guess I haven’t actually made “real ghee”:) Time to find some cultured butter for my next batch of ghee….