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Tasting ghee for the first time is like discovering delicious liquid gold; you’ll want to use it on everything (and we mean everything). Made from clarified butter, ghee is a popular fat regularly used in Indian cuisine and Ayurvedic medicine. Unlike butter, all the milk solids are removed from ghee, which means that ghee has a much higher smoke point and is shelf-stable. Ghee has a pronounced nutty taste that’s just as at home in a stir-fry as it is thinly spread on a piece of good bread.
In Ayurvedic medicine, ghee is used for its alleged digestive, anti-inflammatory, and immune-boosting properties. Here, we cover everything you need to know about getting started with ghee and explore all of its different uses, both in and out of the kitchen (including how to easily make it at home!).
What is ghee? Your new favorite pantry staple.
The distinction between clarified butter and ghee comes down to cooking time; ghee is simmered for a longer period of time than clarified butter. This results in darker milk solids that give ghee a nutty, deeply savory flavor. In India, ghee is made from cow’s milk and water buffalo milk.
“Ghee is considered by Ayurveda to be the most penetrating of edible oils, which means it digests well and travels to nourish the deep tissues of the body…”
—Kate O’Donnell, certified Ayurvedic practitioner
Although it’s possible to find water buffalo milk ghee, it’s far easier (and less expensive) to buy cow’s milk ghee in North American grocery stores. When purchasing ghee, look for brands that only contain cow dairy and are free of hydrogenated vegetable oils (a tell-tale sign of subpar ghee.) Because the lactose-containing milk solids are removed from ghee, it’s generally considered safe for those who suffer from lactose intolerance (although as this article in Today’s Dietician points out, butter is also naturally very low in lactose.)
Is ghee healthier than butter?
One important difference between ghee and butter are their smoke points. Because the milk solids have been removed in ghee, it has a higher smoke point than butter (ghee has a smoke point of 485 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas butter begins to smoke at a much lower 350 degrees Fahrenheit.) Why are smoke points important? According to an article in The Globe And Mail, “the more refined an oil, the higher its smoke point, because refining removes impurities and free fatty acids that can cause the oil to smoke.” That said, both butter and ghee are very high in saturated fats, a type of fat that the American Heart Association recommends you consume in very small quantities.
Ghee and Ayurvedic Medicine
When talking about the perceived health benefits of ghee, it’s important to remember that ghee comes with its own unique cultural context—one that is informed largely by the Ayurvedic tradition. Kate O’ Donnell is a certified Ayurvedic practitioner, Boston-based Ashtanga yoga teacher, and is the author of The Everyday Ayurveda Cookbook: A Seasonal Guide to Eating and Living Well and Everyday Ayurvedic Cooking for a Calm, Clear Mind: 100 Sattvic Recipes. For O’Donnell, ghee is an essential part of practicing Ayurvedic medicine.
“Ghee is considered by Ayurveda to be the most penetrating of edible oils, which means it digests well and travels to nourish the deep tissues of the body, such as bones, nerves, and reproductive tissues,” she says. O’Donnell is a particularly big fan of ghee’s purported antibacterial abilities. “Ghee can be used in the nostrils before a flight to avoid picking up pathogens. Use the pinky fingers to rub a small amount around the nostrils and inhale deeply. Bugs will stick to the ghee, not your passages, and it helps with dryness as well.” Ghee is also used for oil massages, detoxification, and as the base of many Ayurvedic homeopathic medicines.
Although scientists are beginning to study ghee for its potential health benefits, the available literature on the subject is fairly limited. One notable study in the Ayurvedic medicine journal AYU found a positive link between regular ghee intake and a reduction in cardiovascular disease. Another study published in the Journal of the Indian Medical Association used a physician-administered questionnaire to examine the effects of ghee on cardiovascular health in males living in a rural Indian village and found the prevalence of cardiovascular disease was lower in males that regularly consumed ghee than those who didn’t.
Ghee as an All-Natural Beauty Aid
Considering the popularity of natural moisturizing substances like coconut oil and shea butter, it’s no surprise that ghee is also being used cosmetically for its super moisturizing properties for both the hair and skin. Ghee can be applied directly to the skin or hair as is, or, depending on your beauty regimen, it can be mixed with ingredients such as honey, milk, rosewater, and ground almonds. Shannon Buck of Fresh-Picked Beauty recommends this rosemary-infused ghee hair mask.
The idea of using ghee as a beauty product is also gaining traction with those in search of ethically made, all-natural products that they don’t have to DIY, and the European beauty company MIRATI has even released an entire line of products specially formulated with ghee.
How to Cook With Ghee
O’Donnell likes to use a small amount of ghee in her cooking whenever possible. “I usually recommend ghee in smaller amounts with each meal, such as 1 teaspoon in morning eggs, oatmeal, or toast, and then again for sautés, grains, and soups at lunch and dinner. Use it anywhere you would use other oils!”
It may take a few ghee-making attempts to figure out exactly how deeply browned you prefer the milk solids, but don’t worry, each batch of practice ghee will still be delicious.
Ghee has a stronger flavor than butter, so use it judiciously as you only need a small amount. Thanks to its high smoke point, ghee is a great choice for shallow or deep frying (yes, frying in ghee nullifies any potential health benefits…but the results are spectacular.)
How to Make Ghee at Home
When making ghee, use the absolute best unsalted butter available (if you can find Échiré AOP butter from France I highly recommend the splurge, but any good quality butter will work well.) Making ghee at home isn’t a difficult process, but it does require some trial and error. It may take a few ghee-making attempts to figure out exactly how deeply browned you prefer the milk solids, but don’t worry, each batch of practice ghee will still be delicious.
Yield: About 2 cups of ghee
- 1 lb unsalted butter, cut into cubes
- Heavy-bottomed saucepan
- Large spoon
- Mesh sieve
- Glass jar with lid
- Place the cubes of butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan.
- Melt the butter over medium-low heat. You’ll notice that the butter separates into three distinct layers: a layer of solids on the bottom, a middle layer of clarified butter, and a top layer of foam.
- Gently simmer the butter for approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Push aside the top layer of foam with a large spoon and look at the milk solids on the bottom of the saucepan. You want them to turn a light brown color. At this point, you can take the melted butter off the heat or you can simmer for another 5 minutes for a deeper color and a more intense flavor.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat.
- Using a large spoon, scoop off and discard as much of the top layer of foam off as you can. Line a mesh sieve with cheesecloth that has been folded to form several layers and carefully pour the melted butter into a clean glass jar through the sieve (repeat this step if there are any lingering milk solids*.)
- Store the jarred ghee in the fridge for up to six months or at room temperature for one month.
*A note on milk solids: Don’t throw these tasty cooked bits away! Deeply nutty in taste and pleasantly chewy, leftover milk solids can be sprinkled onto rice and risotto, mixed into bread dough, or used as a topping for vegetable gratins.
To ghee or not to ghee?
Like any type of fat—and saturated fat especially—ghee should be used sparingly. The purported nutritional and health benefits of ghee are only now being studied despite the fact that Ayurvedic medicine has been ghee’s biggest supporter for thousands of years. It may help to think of ghee as an accent ingredient, meaning you don’t need very much of it to add a noticeable improvement in flavor. Because of its high smoke point and depth of flavor, it’s absolutely worth it to add ghee to your arsenal of cooking oils (not to mention your beauty regimen!).