Ghee may seem like the hottest new ingredient for those of us in the Western world, but it's actually been used in cuisine as well as in Ayurvedic medicine on the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years.
Ghee is often considered to be a kind of clarified butter, but they aren't identical, Alakananda Ma, president of the National Ayurvedic Medicine Association, tells SELF. "Ghee is similar to clarified butter in that it does not contain milk solids," she explains, "However, when making clarified butter, you strain the butter as soon as it has separated." With ghee, she says the butter should continue to cook until the milk solids turn golden brown and sink to the bottom of the pan—this extra step gives ghee its distinctive nutty flavor.
Traditionally, ghee is used in religious practices and Ayurvedic medicine.
Nita Sharda, R.D., founder of Carrots and Cake Balanced Nutrition Consulting, tells SELF that ghee is frequently used beyond the kitchen in Indian traditions. "It's in a candle we light when pray," she explains, "[and] I remember getting married and dumping ghee in the fire."
Ma says that ghee is used this way because of its importance to the ancient Vedic religion, in which cows are revered and so are their gifts: dung, urine, milk, curd, and ghee. "The ancient Vedic religion is centered in fire ceremonies," she adds, "and ghee has always been the foremost offering that makes the fire burn brightly."
In Ayurveda, ghee is frequently used as food and medicine, Ma explains. "As a food for daily use, ghee is taken with meals for all who desire nourishment," she says. As a medicine, it is often prepared with different herbs in the hopes of improving a variety of conditions, from poor eyesight to sperm production.
It's thought to have many health benefits, and it's generally considered safe to eat for the lactose intolerant.
Though ghee is often purported to be great for improving heart health and reducing inflammation, there isn't yet enough research to back up these claims, Vandana Sheth, R.D.N., C.D.E, owner of a Los Angeles-based nutrition consulting practice and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells SELF. However, because it doesn't contain any milk solids or lactose, it is generally considered to be safe to eat for those who are lactose intolerant. One thing to keep in mind: Because the milk solids are strained by hand in homemade ghee, it can contain trace amounts of lactose. Mass-produced ghee uses far more stringent practices that guarantee a fully lactose-free product, so anyone who's really sensitive may want to opt for one of those options instead. As for the ingredient's nutritional profile, it's slightly higher in fat and calories than butter because it's more concentrated. Sheth recommends using it in moderation and as a substitute for something else, like butter or olive oil.
It's great for cooking all kinds of cuisines.
Sharda says it's known for appearing in daal (a type of lentil soup), chana masala (stewed chickpeas), and saag (blended and stewed spinach and broccoli). She says it's also great by itself on top of fresh, hot roti or naan (try not to drool). But lately, she says she's been using it in non-Indian recipes and loving it. She says it can add a nutty and buttery flavor (without the lactose!) to everything from roasted veggies like green beans to popcorn. And it has a smoke point of 480 degrees F, which means it can cook at a much higher temperature than butter without burning, which only has a smoke point of 350 degrees F.
And it's super easy to make!
Here, I try out the process myself with tips from Priya Krishna, author of the forthcoming cookbook, Indian-ish. Use what I learned and you'll know how to make your own ghee right at home—it'll make your whole house smell like butter!
You don't need any fancy equipment—just a pot, a slotted spoon or ladle, and some unsalted butter.
Set the pot over a medium heat and add as much butter as you like—there's no limit. White bubbles will gradually begin to form, which Krishna says are the milk solids. Using a spoon or a fork or whatever you have around, remove the white bubbles from the top. I used a ladle with holes in it, but you can really use whatever tool you have around to get the job done. At this point, the liquid should be making a soft, bubbling sound.
While the butter is cooking, set a coffee filter or a cheese cloth over a bowl or liquid measuring cup—this is what you'll use to strain the remaining milk solids. After about five to seven minutes, the sound will change from bubbling to crackling; this means that all the water has almost evaporated. The liquid will become clear and you'll start to see brown solids forming at the bottom of your pan. As soon as this starts to happen, remove the pan from the heat, and pour the liquid through your filter—it'll strain slowly, so be patient. After the liquid has passed through entirely, transfer it to a glass jar with a lid, allow it to cool, and close it up. Because the water has been removed, it can safely be stored at room temperature where it will solidify.
And that's it! Use your homemade ghee in these easy recipes.
With a bit of ghee, this classic Indian dish, which is made from lentils, broth, and lots of spices will taste way more authentic. Get the recipe here.
Roasted Vegetables With Caramelized Onion Purée
Roasting vegetables with ghee gives them a deliciously rich and nutty flavor. Get the recipe here.
Not only is this saucy chickpea recipe way, way better than the ready-made frozen kinds you'd find at the store, it's also the perfect way to use your ghee. Get the recipe here.