What is ghee? An article in the New York Times from 1955 notes that while it is true that ghee is essentially clarified butter, it’s quite a bit more than that, “in the same way that wine is more than the juice of a squeezed grape” according to the article.
Ghee is butter with the milk solids separated out and the water boiled away. That makes what remains–the ghee–more shelf stable and with a much better smoke point than butter. Is ghee healthy? If you Google this question you will find a wildly diverse range of opinions from “It’s a miracle food” to “It’s 50% saturated fat and very bad for you as a result”.
The real answer to the health question depends greatly on how ghee fits in with your other eating habits. If you have a diet that is low on certain fats and nutrients, a reasonable amount of ghee may help.
But if your diet is high in saturated fats already, you may need to be more selective in how you use ghee, or consider replacing other saturated fats with ghee so that you don’t go overboard.
Most sources we found agree that ghee originated in India. Plain old butter doesn’t really stand a chance when stored on the shelf with high ambient room temperatures; India’s hotter climate likely forced a great deal of food innovation, with ghee being one of those.
Clarified butter tends to be more shelf-stable due to a higher concentration of saturated fats. BonAppetit.com reminds us that the water has been boiled out of ghee and as a result? No water means no place for bacteria to thrive.
Believe it or not, for a brief time some American business types actually contemplated trying to export ghee to India.
The Washington Post reports that in the 1950s, there was a huge glut of surplus butter on American dairy farms. Someone in the government decided it would be a great idea to send an American dairy expert to India to try to sell people in India on the idea of American-exported ghee.
There’s a logical fallacy known as the fundamental attribution error, which essentially works by assuming that all people are alike (just like me) and that they all want the same things. One of the big lessons of this misguided American experiment? Not all people expect the same things from ghee.
Some people prefer ghee made from cow’s milk, others prefer the buffalo milk variety. The types of ghee available regionally in India vary as much as you might expect. In spite of this, the American dairy expert came home with reports of much potential to export American ghee to India, if the regional tastes could be accommodated.
Somewhere, cooler heads must have prevailed, recognizing that exporting ghee to India might be something along the lines of trying to export oranges to Florida. Nothing came of the idea, and the dream of the Great American Ghee Empire faded away.
Britannica.com describes one way to make ghee; you take cow or buffalo milk butter and melt it slowly over a fire. The butter should be heated until the water boils away, then you let the mixture cool.
The ghee, which is also described as butterfat, rises to the top. Curds remain after you pour off the ghee; Britannica.com says those curds are still half butterfat and it’s possible to make lower-quality ghee from what is left behind. This ghee is often mixed with milk fat or peanut oil.
Ghee may be a good alternative for those of us who are lactose-intolerant. There is little lactose or other problematic elements of dairy in clarified butter, though it may be technically inaccurate to say there is NO lactose. It’s just been greatly reduced.
Ghee’s smoke point is around 465 degrees Fahrenheit, making it higher than butter (at 350 degrees). You can make it yourself at home using a simmer-and-scoop process to remove the milk solids as the butter simmers on your stovetop. Store-bought ghee can be a bit pricey in some stores, so making it at home is a great less expensive alternative if you don’t mind taking the time to do it.
Earlier in this article we mentioned the shelf-stability of ghee. You do not have to refrigerate ghee, and it can last for months. You won’t be able to keep it around that long if you are into eating it on a regular basis, but if you do need to store it longer-term, avoid keeping it near sources of heat and steam.
Ghee loses its room-temperature self stability if it gets accidentally contaminated by other food, but you don’t have to throw ghee away if that happens, just store it in the fridge instead. Some sources say ghee can last up to a full year in the fridge, but your experience may vary.
On the subcontinent of India, certain types of ghee may be used in Hindu rituals. Ghee made from cow’s milk is typically used according to Britannica.com, where ghee made from buffalo milk seems to be “secular” and not an option for those observances.
In the context of ritual and ceremony, ghee is used for a variety of purposes including as a fuel source for lamps, a preparation for altars or altarpieces, it is used as a wedding gift, and may also be a funerary offering.
Try these recipes made with ghee: