We Indians do not always use ghee in our cooking, because we, too, are concerned about our diet. But its nutty flavor, the result of gentle browning, is the key taste in many curries, and often even a mere tablespoon is enough to provide succulence. Since the Vedic times (over 6,000 years ago) of the Indo-Aryan culture, ghee has played a role in many facets of Hinduism, including fueling the eternal flame associated with birth, marriage, and death. Ghee evolved thousands of years ago, when there was no refrigeration (actually, many Indians still don’t have refrigerators today). Milk solids and water promote rancidity in butter, and when they are removed, gone is the need for a refrigerator. Middle Eastern and Arabic samneh is made the same way, as is smen from North Africa (as much as the word processing software wants to add an e between “s” and “m,” don’t let it!).
A few do’s and don’ts. First, don’t use margarine or any butter substitutes that want you to think they’re just like the real deal. Do use a heavy-bottomed pan to prevent the butter from scorching. Cast iron, stainless steel, carbon steel, and ceramic-coated cast iron are all fair game. In fact, I use a cast-iron or carbon steel wok if I happen to be making a large batch, as the fat seasons the pan. Don’t turn up the heat beyond the low setting, as much as you may be tempted to do so; if you do, the milk solids will start to burn. Do make sure the glass jar is clean and dry before pouring in the ghee. Moisture will promote the growth of mold, which is the same reason why you should let the ghee cool completely before screwing on that jar’s lid.
Here’s a Cliff Claven–style tidbit for all of you Cheers fans who adored the mailman’s life, filled with inane banalities: You cannot deep-fry in butter because it has a low smoke point (that’s the temperature at which oil starts to smoke). However, remove the milk solids and moisture, and you have elevated butter’s smoke point, making it safe for deep-frying (of course, we are not talking about measuring fat calories when you do decide to splurge on fried foods this way).
Ghee is widely available in stores. It is not easy on the pocketbook, so be prepared to plunk down your hard-earned money for the convenience, should you not have 15 to 20 minutes of free time to spend in the kitchen. I often splurge and buy ghee that is imported from India, only because the cows (or water buffalo, depending on where the milk came from) graze on a different diet and the ghee has a unique flavor not found in America’s dairy land.
Total Timeunder 30 minutes
Make Ahead RecipeYes
Five Ingredients or LessYes
Taste and Texturebuttery, nutty
Type of DishCondiments
- 1 pound unsalted butter
Line a fine-mesh tea strainer with a piece of cheesecloth, set it over a clean, dry glass measuring cup or pint-size canning jar, and set it aside.
Melt the butter in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat, stirring it occasionally to ensure an even melt (otherwise, the bottom part of the block melts and starts to bubble while the top half remains firm). Once it melts, you will notice that a lot of foam is gathering on the surface. Scoop the foam out with a spoon or just let it be; the melted butter will eventually stop foaming and start to subside. Now you can start to carefully skim off the foam. Some of the milk solids will settle at the bottom and start to brown lightly. This light browning is what gives Indian ghee its characteristic nutty flavor. This process will take 15 to 20 minutes.
Once the liquid appears quite clear (like oil) with a light amber hue, pour it through the cheesecloth-lined strainer, leaving the browned milk solids behind, and set it aside to cool.
When the ghee is cool, pour it into a storage jar (if it isn’t already in one) and shut it. Keep it at room temperature, right next to your other bottled oils; it will solidify, even at room temperature. (I don’t find it necessary to refrigerate ghee, but if you wish, by all means do so. I have kept mine at room temperature for many months, without any concern for rancidity or spoilage. Because ghee has no milk solids in it, and that’s what can turn butter rancid, I do as millions in India do, and leave it out.)
2008 Raghavan Iyer