I recently ran out of butter. My daughter and I were making muffins when I realized I was out, and both my daughter and the batter stared up, begging me to continue baking. In my desperation to complete the job, I found a jar of ghee in the refrigerator. I added some to the batter, and when we retrieved those muffins from the oven, they were without a doubt the tastiest we had ever made.
We made popcorn later that afternoon, and I used a small pat of ghee instead of butter in the topping. According to my daughter, that, too, was “the tastiest ever.” I figured I might as well keep the train moving: One night later that week, I roasted broccoli in ghee, and there wasn’t a single piece left. The next week, I topped our sweet potatoes with a teeny bit of ghee and found myself with clean plates. Apparently I was onto something.
I have forever known that ghee is rich and delicious, but I’d mostly used it for more traditional purposes, such as curries and soups. But it’s remarkably versatile. I’ve now enjoyed it in bread, pancakes, oatmeal, eggs, even coffee. Its flavor is rich, almost like an intensified butter.
What is ghee?
Ghee is butter that is simmered to remove the water and milk fats, then filtered, resulting in a cooking fat that is shelf-stable and usable at much higher heats than butter and most oils.
For those of you who want to run the other way from any relative of butter, either because you cannot tolerate dairy or it brings to life unpleasant images of high cholesterol, just wait. Ghee is almost entirely free of lactose and casein, the two reasons many people avoid dairy. Studies show that ghee does not increase cholesterol, as it is high in short- and medium-chain fatty acids, instead of the long-chain fatty acids most associated with heart disease.
Ghee has long been touted in Indian cooking and Ayurvedic medicine as healing to the digestive tract and a contributor to strong eyesight, healthy skin and stable moods. Modern studies validate that ghee provides the fat-soluble vitamins A (for eyesight and skin), D (for bones and immune health), and E (to balance hormones and repair damaged tissue), and all of these vitamins are easily absorbed when combined with the natural fat in ghee. Ghee also has butyric acid, shown to support healthy digestion.
The smoke point of a cooking fat should matter to anyone cooking at home, because when oil is heated beyond its smoke point, the oil changes structure and becomes much less healthy to consume. The smoke point occurs when the oil stops simmering and starts smoking, and every oil and fat has its own smoke point. Essential minerals and enzymes are destroyed at this point, and free radicals that can damage our bodies are released.
Ghee has one of the highest smoke points of any fat or oil, so it can be used to cook almost anything at almost any temperature. This makes it an incredibly versatile cooking tool. The ubiquitous extra-virgin olive oil has a very low smoke point and should never be used over medium or high heat, only over low heat or unheated to season salads, pastas, vegetables and other room-temperature dishes.
Just as ghee looks like butter and is made from butter, it is also a saturated fat like butter. The calories from saturated fats should make up less than 10 percent of an overall healthful daily diet. Luckily, very little ghee is needed to achieve a rich, creamy flavor. (Although it can be substituted for butter at a 1-to-1 ratio, I often use a little less.) So whether you jump on a ghee kick or just stash a jar in your pantry for a muffin emergency, ghee is great in small quantities.
Ghee is sold at most grocery stores with the Indian foods or with the cooking oils, and opened jars can be stored in the refrigerator as a solid for a year or in the pantry as a liquid for three months.
First published in The Washington Post on Thursday, November 2, 2017.