The Key to Good Ghee

India Temple with Ghee Lamps

In traditional South Asian (Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepali, and Pakistani) cuisine, ghee is a staple for cooking. Because of its high saturated fat content, it is semisolid at cooler temperatures and liquid at warmer temperatures. It has a high smoke point (between 375 - 485 degrees Fahrenheit or 190–250 degrees Celsius, depending upon the purity) and doesn’t break down and form free radicals as readily as vegetable oils. It is therefore a good choice for cooking at higher temperatures, when sautéing or frying, for example.

After the food is cooked, ghee is also used as a finishing oil, drizzled over the dish just before serving. Some cooks flavor the ghee with herbs or spices to add even more flavor and use it as a dipping sauce alongside breads, vegetables, meat, or fish.

From temple to table

Ghee is so highly valued in India for religious, health, and culinary purposes that it is sometimes stored in temples for offerings to the gods, burning in lamps called naanda deepa. Mahaghtra ghee, aged for over 100 years and with a price to match, is believed to heal many ailments. Some Indians say that no food is complete without the goodness of ghee!

This liquid gold can be purchased in stores that specialize in Indian or South Asian goods, and even online at Amazon these days. It is manufactured commercially in different ways, with the best quality ghee being made from cultured raw cream collected when cows are eating the tender young growth of spring or fall grass.

A home cook can make ghee as well. Although it is not difficult, the process does require time and careful watching.

Make it yourself!

The simplest way is to start with grass-fed, organic butter. Cultured butter is traditionally used, resulting in desi ghee, but you can use either cultured or sweet butter to make ghee. Although unsalted butter is preferable, you can also use salted butter since the processing removes the salt. The finished product reflects the quality of the ingredients, so use the best quality butter you can find.

Start with a pound of butter and a two-quart saucepan. Warm the butter slowly in the uncovered pan over low to medium heat on a stove, and continue to cook until the liquid butter begins to bubble. You may want to use a spatter screen because the liquid will pop and sputter as the water molecules evaporate.

The bubbling liquid may expand exponentially and burn if it gets too hot. Turn down the heat and continue to let it simmer. Skim the foam that rises to the surface with a clean, dry spoon. In about 15 to 20 minutes, the liquid butter will stop sputtering, and the milk solids (sugars and proteins) will form a whitish substance in the bottom of the pan. At this point, watch carefully as those milk solids begin to caramelize and turn brown, being careful not to let the solids get too brown and burn.

When the ghee emits a nutty, caramel aroma, turn off the heat and let it cool slightly to allow it to absorb more of the rich flavor of the browned residue. While it is still liquid, pour the liquid ghee through double cheesecloth or an unbleached coffee filter into a clean, dry, heatproof jar (a Mason jar works well).

The browned solids that are strained out include the casein and lactose from the butter. This residue can be discarded, but many generations of Indian children have enjoyed it mixed with a sweetener and consumed as a special treat. Some cooks use the browned residue as a nutty flavoring in soups, stews, or vegetable dishes. If you used salted butter, this residue will contain all the salt and the clear liquid will be salt-free.

Let the ghee cool at room temperature, uncovered, until the liquid becomes a creamy semisolid. This helps prevent condensation inside the jar, extending the shelf life of the finished ghee.

Seasoning the ghee

Adventuresome cooks may want to try flavoring their ghee, which can be done by adding garlic, herbs, and/or spices to the melting butter at the beginning of the process, then straining and discarding them with the browned butter solids at the end. Some combinations include: garlic and oregano, garlic and ginger, cinnamon and clove, shallot and tarragon. The possible combinations are endless.

Ghee storage

Since the sugars and proteins, lactose, and casein have been removed, ghee is a shelf-stable product containing mostly saturated fat. Although some manufacturers recommend refrigeration for ghee, it does keep well at room temperature for short-term, everyday use. In fact, the cycle of warming and refrigerating may cause condensation to form, which can increase the chances of contamination (hydrolytic rancidity). Using a clean, dry utensil to scoop ghee from its container is important to prevent the introduction of pathogens or impurities that can result in microbial rancidity. If you don’t wish to refrigerate your ghee, you may want to keep it in a cool, dark location or in an airtight container that blocks light to prevent oxidative rancidity. With proper care, ghee can last for a very long time. Some say that the older the ghee is, the better—in fact, stories are told of valuable aged ghee being passed down from generation to generation.

But most people find that their ghee doesn’t last long at all—once they discover the delicious flavor it adds to food, they go through it far too quickly to worry about its shelf life!

- ALICE ABLER

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