One of the small but mighty joys of the culinary world is that there exists a seemingly innumerable array of fats and oils with which to cook. Animal or vegetable is merely the first decision. Within each family of fats are dozens of additional adventurous choices. Each cook has their own favorite fat, and each fat has its own peculiar benefits and taste. Different regions have historically favored different fats based on their climates and animals or vegetables readily available. There’s the oil of olive trees that dominates the palate of the Mediterranean. The milking cows of northern Europe have inspired French cuisine for centuries, prompting Julia Child to quip, “With enough butter, anything is good.” Lamb tallow is a readily available cooking fat in Iceland, and coconut oil lends Jamaican dishes their distinctive, sweet taste. In the tropical climates of India, people have turned for centuries to the cow — much like their northern European brethren — for their source of cooking fat. Because of India’s intense tropical heat, however, they had to create a non-perishable alternative to butter: ghee.
Preparing and Using Ghee
Ghee has a flavor profile not entirely unlike butter, but carries with it distinctive and aromatic caramel and nutty undertones. When butter is boiled, the milk solids separate, sink to the bottom, and the remaining pure butterfat that’s left is amber-colored and clear. Poured into glass jars and hot-packed, this pure butterfat called “ghee” can sit on a shelf for up to a year (or even longer) without spoiling. At room temperature, it’s liquid. In colder climates, it solidifies into a grainy, golden spread.
Ghee has a smoking temperature of about 450 degrees Fahrenheit (butter’s is 350 degrees), so it lends itself easily to sautéing and frying.
There’s plenty of opportunity to use ghee in your everyday cooking. It may not replace reliable butter on your morning toast, but it’s highly versatile in cooking and baking, and can be used as a substitute for butter in any recipe using a 1-to-1 ratio. Vegetables love to be sautéed in it. Eggs prefer to be scrambled in ghee. Warm rice can be coated with a generous tablespoon of it. And baking with ghee adds a flavor and texture that your dinner guests won’t soon forget. If you make ghee at home, while it’s still hot you can embed various flavors in it. Rosemary, sage, and thyme are excellent in savory cooking. Mint and lavender can also add a complexity to your baked goods that a bottled flavor could never replicate.
If you’ve ever had the inclination or time to make butter, consider ghee for your next culinary adventure. Its nutritional and practical potential may make it an important ingredient in your kitchen.
Ghee’s Health Benefits
In the latter half of the 20th century, the reputation of ghee — and its milkier cousin, butter — was tarnished for its purported implication in a rising incidence of coronary artery disease. Today, that link has largely been discredited, and in more recent years, ghee has enjoyed celebrity status. In Western cultures, with the paleo, ketogenic, and Whole30 diets gaining traction among health-conscious consumers, ghee has become a darling of the health food industry and is considered by many devotees to be a key ingredient in overall health. Some studies have shown that ghee may help improve heart health, reduce inflammation, and even regulate weight gain. Those with a slight-to-moderate dairy intolerance often find ghee kinder to their digestion. It also contains vitamins A, K, and E. Ghee-key recipes, such as Bulletproof coffee (coffee with butter, coconut oil, or ghee), have become a mainstay in the culinary conversations of modern foodies.
Despite the ever-contradicting studies on saturated fats and heart health, one enduring fact remains about ghee: It’s a dairy product that doesn’t require refrigeration. For that fact alone, ghee should pique any homesteader’s interest. There’s no food fate more disheartening than a basement freezer dying quietly, taking with it frozen summer treasures: strawberries, pesto, rhubarb, June butter. With ghee, you needn’t worry about such precarious modern amenities.
A Global Perspective
There are many versions of preserved butter found in warm climates all over the world. Egypt has samna baladi, a ghee made from water buffalo milk. In the countries of northern Africa, they have smen, a clarified butter aged and fermented for months in a brine. Brazil has manteiga-de-garrafa. Ethiopians have a spiced version known as niter kibbeh.
Kate MacLean is a writer, farmer, and mother in the hills of central Vermont. She’s currently developing a children’s book with her sister about the farm on which they both live, and the silly animals that keep them working from dawn ‘til dusk.