Ghee (pronounced GEE with a hard G), the Hindi word for "fat," can be used as a synonym for clarified butter, with one difference. Unlike in the French technique, ghee traditionally simmers for a while, browning the milk solids and adding a slightly nutty flavor to the finished product. It's widely used in Indian cuisine and ayurvedic traditions, but it deserves a place in any modern American kitchen.
What Is Ghee?
Like clarified butter, ghee results from separating the milk solids and the butterfat in processed butter while cooking out the water. In the classic French style, the pure butterfat gets strained immediately and used in its pale golden state; the Indian method takes the process a step further, essentially caramelizing the milk solids before straining the butterfat to give the resulting ghee a nutty flavor and a deeper color.
How to Use Ghee
Ghee performs better than butter in high-heat cooking since it has a smoke point of 450 F, compared to 350 F for ordinary butter. The fat most commonly used in Indian cooking, ghee can work as the butter or oil in most recipes, no matter the origin. Ghee can be swapped for vegetable oil or coconut oil in baked goods or used for sautéing and deep-frying. Or simply melt it and spread it on bread for a snack, pour it over popcorn, or drizzle it on vegetables before serving.
What Does It Taste Like?
Ghee tastes like butter but with a slightly roasted, nutty background note. Like butter, commercial brands of ghee differ in flavor depending on the quality of the milk used to produce it. Because the milk solids have been removed, ghee does not have the creamy mouthfeel of butter. Ghee remains soft at room temperature but turns firm and granular in the refrigerator.
You can purchase packaged ghee, but it's also quite easy to make at home. As butter melts, it separates into three distinct layers. At medium heat, this should take just a few minutes, so keep a careful watch. The top layer foams and the milk solids drop to the bottom. The clarified butter (ghee) remains in the middle. For best results, start with high-quality unsalted butter produced from the milk of grass-fed cows.
Where to Buy Ghee
If you prefer to purchase ghee, you can find it at most natural-foods stores and health-food co-ops, plus nearly any mainstream grocery store. Look for it with the cooking oils and shortening or in a dedicated ethnic foods section; shelf-stable ghee does not need to be refrigerated.
With a longer shelf life than ordinary butter, ghee, when stored in an airtight container, can also be kept at room temperature for extended periods. Keep it in a cool, dark, and dry cabinet. Heat and liquid, at the wrong time, can cause ghee to oxidize or spoil. Oxidation turns it an off shade of brown; spoiled ghee has a sour smell. In either case, the ghee is no longer safe to use and should be discarded.
Nutrition and Benefits
A teaspoon of ghee contains 45 calories and 3 grams of saturated fat; notably, it contains no trans fat, now largely blamed as the culprit for bad cholesterol readings and heart disease. Butter, by comparison, contains a small amount of trans fat.
Ghee, particularly when it comes from the milk of grass-fed cows, contains healthy doses of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. It's also a good source of the fatty acids called conjugated linoleic acid and butyrate, which have been credited with anti-inflammatory properties. But it's still a calorie-dense fat that should be consumed in moderation.
A staple in ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, ghee has been used to soothe burns, treat rashes, and moisturize skin and hair. It's also considered a digestive that helps move toxins and waste out of the digestive tract.
The pure butterfat of ghee contains no lactose, so people who avoid dairy products due to lactose intolerance may be able to consume it without issues. Homemade ghee may not have completely removed the proteins and sugar, however, so anyone with a severe milk allergy or lactose intolerance might want to avoid it.
Basic ghee should contain no ingredients other than unsalted sweet cream butter. However, you may find cultured ghee, which is made from fermented cream and tastes a bit more tangy, like yogurt, or spiced ghee, which includes additional flavor from garlic or chilies or herb blends.