Ghee 101: The Basics

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photo by the author

I just made my first batch of ghee.

To those who aren’t quite sure what ghee is, which would have included me not too long ago, it’s butter without milk solids (whey). When you remove the whey you also remove water, so ghee has a higher smoke point than butter and most oils. Removing the whey also makes it lactose-free. You can spread it like butter and use it like you use oil.

You make ghee by heating unsalted butter for about twenty minutes or thereabouts. Some of the whey will foam on the surface, and you skim it off; some will eventually sink to the bottom of the pot and become browned. You then strain the liquified butter, leaving out the browned remains from the bottom of the pot. When the ghee cools it becomes a soft, grainy solid.

Ghee is expensive to buy ready-made and I was too intimidated to make it myself, so I would substitute oil in its place whenever a recipe called for it. Since it’s a mainstay of Indian cuisine, and I’ve been cooking more and more frequently from Indian Master Chef Vikas Khanna’s book “Flavors First” and many of his recipes call for ghee, I decided it was time to get over my app-ghee-hension and make some.

Vikas explains the process of making ghee in his book, but I still felt unsure, so I checked the internet for videos. They are legion. I watched a few until I felt like I had a feel for the process and gave it a try.

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Stages of Ghee | photo by the author

Everything happened as my research said it would. The melted butter foamed, I skimmed, it stopped foaming. The residue that formed at the bottom of the pot got brown and the liquid changed color. I strained it into a jar and let it cool.

After my ghee cooled, its consistency was kind of like really smooth applesauce. I saw some images of ghee online with a texture that looked like the batch I made, and others that looked more like vegetable shortening. I also saw some images where the melted ghee was more amber in color. This made me a little uncertain, but I still counted this batch a success and I was unwarrantedly proud of myself for making it.

Which leads to the question: is ghee worth making?

I tried cooking with ghee in place of butter or oil in some familiar dishes to see if I could taste a difference. I used it to make a spinach-egg scramble and thought the eggs were better than usual. But were they really? And was the ghee the reason? Then I used it for popcorn on the stovetop. Also quite good, among the best I’ve made, but same question. (Do you see a pattern forming here? I’m just saying.)

Next came Vikas’s Yellow Lentils with Turmeric and Ginger. The recipe lists either ghee or vegetable oil among its ingredients, and in the past when I made it I used oil. I tried it again using ghee. It seemed to me that with ghee the finished dish had a creamier, more buttery taste and I liked it even more than before.

So my answer is yes, ghee is worth it, and I want to learn more about how to make it and use it. I’ve done some more research, and found that people save the skimmed whey (which they use for things like mashed potatoes) as well as the brown residue at the bottom of the pan (which they spread on veggies or toast). I also discovered that some people don’t skim the whey at all when they make ghee, and just let the solids cook down to the bottom of the pan. When a second, lighter foam appears, the ghee is ready.

The result is I’m still a little unsure if I’m making ghee correctly and all the ways to use it. But I don’t mind that. There’s something so satisfying to me about exploring and assimilating new ingredients and ways to use them. I think that’s because experimentation doesn’t come naturally to me, especially with food. I know butter is hardly a mystery ingredient, but turning it into ghee was a new thing. Thus the self-congratulation when I get the courage to attempt it.

Speaking of the courage to try something new, what’s so scary about dates? Or figs? I don’t have the answer, but I’ll tell you right now I won’t try them or cook with them. Or at least I haven’t yet. Stay tuned.

Click here for Vikas Khanna’s recipe for Yellow Lentils with Turmeric and Ginger, from “ Flavors First, “ Lake Isle Press, 2011.

Originally published at https://www.lakeislepress.com on December 17, 2020.

Dara O’Brien is the Creative Director of Lake Isle Press. When she isn’t cooking or writing about cookbooks, she writes plays and sometimes acts in them.

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