When I was at the grocery store the other day, I overheard a woman say to her friend, “Oh, wow, they have ghee!” She quickly put the yellow jar in her basket. I wanted to tap her on the shoulder and say, “I can tell you how to make ghee at home,” but of course, I didn’t. The 8-ounce jar sold for eight dollars. You could say she got a bargain. I saw 7.8 ounces of ghee on Amazon on sale for sixteen dollars, plus shipping! If you don’t cook Indian food, you might not be familiar with the Indian butter called ghee. It’s used in many recipes to add rich flavor or to sauté meats and vegetables.
Traditional ghee is made from farm-fresh cow or buffalo milk that is soured to make “yogurt” and then churned into butter. The butter is cooked until the water evaporates and the solids turn brown. The liquid butter is strained so that what remains is a beautiful yellow or golden ghee. The classic ghee is said to be more complex in flavor, but I am happy with the ghee I make at home from high quality butter. If you simply cook the butter, evaporate the water, and strain it, you have clarified butter. Cook it longer, until the solids turn brown, and you have ghee. Or continue to cook the butter until it smells nutty and the solids are really brown (but do not strain), you have browned butter—another delicious cooking ingredient!
I cook Indian food often, so I make ghee several times a year. Ghee adds a lovely flavor to the vegetables or lentils it’s swirled into, or the chicken sautéed in it, or the naan bread that’s brushed with it. Garlic, ginger, and herbs and spices—basil, rosemary, cumin seeds—can be added during cooking the butter to flavor the ghee. When ghee is carefully strained to remove all of the milk solids, it has a higher smoke point than butter. Ghee’s smoke point is around 400 degrees Fahrenheit versus 350 degrees for butter. On a cool kitchen counter ghee can last a month or more but in the refrigerator it will last at least six months. And if you make it yourself, it costs no more than the price of the butter you use.
Ghee isn’t limited to Indian food. In fact, clarified butter, browned or not, is used in cuisines around the world. Here in the United States, for example, we serve it with lobster as a dipping sauce. With a high smoke point, it’s a flavorful substitute for oil when sautéing.
Indian food is easy to make with a good recipe. Although some recipes are time-consuming, and many dishes require a half dozen spices and as many other ingredients—the end result is worth the effort. A trip to an Indian market, if there is one nearby, is the best place to find the ingredients you will need at reasonable prices. Buying spices and other ingredients online is the second best way. If you purchase the spices at the grocery store, they will be expensive. If you want to try cooking Indian food, check out my favorite books at the end of the recipe. There are many newer books on the market that are probably excellent.