Cooking Tips

Clarified Butter & Ghee – what are they?

For most of us, butter is a delicious ingredient, especially if you buy a high-quality brand. Its drawback in the kitchen, though, is its low smoke point. This makes it a poor choice for any high-heat cooking, including sauteing. This is where Clarified Butter or Ghee is superior. What those products are and how to use them is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

For a more general discussion on butter, see this Tip. American butter is composed of about 80% fat, 15% water and milk proteins. European butters tend to have a higher fat content, 82%-85% and even up to 90%. Both types may taste good but their low smoke point limits their usability. See this Tip on Culinary Oils for a discussion on smoke points.

Clarified butter and Ghee are two products that have much higher smoke points. That is because they have been cooked to remove water and solids. The main difference between the two is that ghee is cooked further than clarified butter to remove more water.

Clarified butter still retains some water whereas all the water is removed from Ghee. Because of the absence of water, it will keep up to 3 months on the counter and up to 1 year refrigerated. Clarified butter should be refrigerated. Ghee will also have a nuttier and richer flavor.

The clarifying process also removes casein and lactose. Some say that this makes ghee more suitable for the dairy sensitive person. According to registered dietitian Candace O’Neill with the Cleveland Clinic, “Some people who avoid dairy for digestive reasons may tolerate ghee better than butter. But in general, they should be fine with butter as well because the amounts of lactose and casein are so small. If you have a casein allergy, you should definitely avoid consuming both in case of cross-contamination.”

What are uses for clarified butter and ghee?

  • It is what is normally served alongside lobster, where it is called “drawn butter”. Some chefs, though, will just use melted butter, not clarified butter.
  • It is great for making hollandaise and baklava.
  • It is ideal for high heat cooking due to its high smoke point.

Although you can purchase ghee at the supermarket, you can also make it yourself by cooking butter long enough to evaporate the water and also removing the milk solids. Due to the removal of these parts, the quantity of your eventual clarified butter or ghee will be less than the amount of butter with which you start, probably about 25% less. You will also want to use unsalted butter. As discussed in the above mentioned Tip, the salt content of salted butters can vary from brand to brand. Also, as the water evaporates, the salt content will concentrate.

The process can be done either on the stovetop or in the oven.

For the stovetop, put your butter in a light-colored heavy duty saucepan. You may want to cover with a splatter guard as it will sputter as the cooking process proceeds. First, the butter will melt, then the water will begin to boil out followed by the milk solids sinking to the bottom.

When the liquid appears clear, you have clarified butter. If you keep cooking until the butter begins to brown, you will have ghee. The entire process should take about 1 to 1½ hours.

Once the cooking process is halted, allow it cool just a bit and then, strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Many recommend lining the sieve either with a coffee filter or cheese cloth. Others have had success using a fat separator such as you would use for your Thanksgiving gravy. Allow it to cool to room temperature and cover tightly.

Rather than straining, some chefs will melt the butter and allow it to sit for 10 minutes. They then skim off the foamy milk solids, cover and refrigerate. This causes the fat to solidify although it can take up to 4 hours. They remove the solid the fat, blot off the wet bottom and store in the refrigerator.

The oven method is hands-off but can take twice the amount of time. Put the butter in a Dutch oven and cook, uncovered, on the lower middle rack in a 250°F oven until the water evaporates and solids are golden brown. This can take up to 3 hours. Allow it to cool and then strain as above.

America’s Test Kitchen recommends a method that they say will speed up the process. It adds cornstarch to the melting butter, which they say will trap the butter’s water as well as any water-soluble proteins in the milk solids as quickly as 30 seconds. They recommend adding ½ Tbsp per ½ cup butter to your butter and then proceeding with the cooking process.

This is not something that you would want to do for all your butter needs but is a technique that is good to know and to try at least once.