When my little one started eating solids, my pantry was overtaken by an uninterrupted supply of ghee. The sudden invasion was caused by the matriarchs of the family, who wanted to ensure that I fed the infant only homemade, rather than store-bought, ghee. Steel canisters poured in from their kitchens to ours, enough to last a few months.
Ghee holds sacrosanct value in my culture. It is used in cooking, worship, and alternative medicine. In the Indian culinary universe, ghee is a beloved cooking fat, and also a luxurious one. It is ambrosial, treasured for its nutty flavor and grainy mouthfeel. Its role in everyday as well as festive dishes is critical. Whether it’s used for a tadka, the ingenious technique of blooming whole spices in fat, or for deep-frying sweets and snacks for the gods, or as a final flourish over a bowl of khichdi or chapati, the role of ghee is so critical that traditional home cooks make sure they never run out of it.
In recent years, ghee has earned a reputation as a so-called superfood, dubbed by the health-conscious as “liquid gold.” For home cooks whose families have used ghee for generations, it’s hard to understand what the fuss is about. So let’s find out.
What exactly is ghee?
Ghee is fat. It is made by simmering butter, and then clarifying it over heat to separate out the milk solids and water. The process yields a pale yellow or amber liquid that transforms into a smooth spread once it cools and solidifies. In Bengali homes, it is allowed to caramelize until a deep brown color is achieved.
Ghee in no two households tastes the same. This is because the technique, cooking time, and even the vessel used to prepare it vary from one family to another. The quality of milk matters, and depends on the type of animal feed. Ghee in the mountainous Himalayan region, for instance, tastes different from the ghee found in the plains of Maharashtra due to the influence of terroir.
Traditionally, ghee in India is made from cow’s milk using the bilona process, which is believed to have existed since the Vedic times. It involves boiling and cooling the milk, then inoculating it with curd and leaving it to set overnight. The resulting fermented curd is then churned the next morning using a bilona, or wooden beater, to separate the butter and buttermilk. To make ghee, the butter is melted over heat until its water content has evaporated, leaving a clear residue. The process, which takes two days to complete, is now dying off due to the rise of mechanized production.
In many households, ghee is prepared with clotted cream that has been collected from the surface of full-fat milk over a period of time. Fresh yogurt is then added to the cream, which helps it turn into sour cream, usually overnight, and also gives the ghee a unique flavor. The fermented cream is then blended with cold water in order to separate out the butter. Finally, it is allowed to simmer over heat until the milk solids have settled down. The process may seem tedious, but the end result is deeply satisfying.
Since ghee has no water, it has a high smoke point (approximately 482 degrees, versus butter’s 350 degrees), which makes it ideal for cooking over high heat. Its absence of milk solids also means ghee is good for those who have dairy allergies. And because it’s shelf stable, it does not require refrigeration, a characteristic that speaks to its origins as an ingredient able to withstand India’s hot weather.
What does ghee taste like?
No, ghee does not taste like butter; it is lighter on the palate. A jar of well-made ghee has a defined nuttiness that comes from the caramelization of the milk solids. You should also be able to rub it between your fingers to test for tiny granules.
The adulation is evident in chef Shriya Shetty’s voice. “It is the ingredient for a good chicken ghee roast. Be it the caramelization of the spices or the final flavor, the dish will fall apart if the ghee is of inferior quality,” says Shetty, who is also known as the “ghee roast girl,” and spent months perfecting the fiery red Mangalorean classic for her pop-ups and workshops.
What is the history of ghee?
Ghee can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization from roughly 8,000 years ago. Lipid residue analysis on pottery discovered at archaeological sites suggest dairy played an important role in the local economy. At the time, buffalo milk was prized for its high fat content, and therefore most suitable for making ghee.
The Sutras, or ancient Indian texts believed to be dated from 800 BCE to 300 BCE, confirm the widespread use of ghee during festive occasions. In his book Food and Drinks in Ancient India (From Earliest Times to C. 1200 A.D.), author Om Prakash mentions madhuparka, a sweet made of honey, yogurt, or ghee that was prepared for worship or to welcome guests. Early Buddhists favored clarified butter, and it was given to convalescent monks as tonic.
Known as ghrita in Sanskrit, ghee is used as an oblation in yajna or ritual sacrifices even today. In her book Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, food historian and author Colleen Taylor Sen talks about an “ode to ghee” found in the hymns in the Rig Veda:
“They pour over the fire, smiling,
Like beautiful women on their way to a festival.
The streams of butter caress the logs,
And Jatavedas, taking pleasure in them,
pays them court.
I watch them eagerly; they are like girls,
Painting themselves to go the wedding
There where the soma juice is pressed, where sacrifice is made,
The streams of butter run down to be clarified.”
Can I make ghee at home?
Absolutely. Making your own, says the Indian-born cookbook author Nandita Godbole, carries plenty of benefits: “It is free of preservatives, and holistically inclined. It is like having complete control of what you eat.” It is also cost-effective — online, an eight-ounce jar of ghee typically costs between $12 and $20. And the flavor of homemade ghee is far superior to that of most mass-produced commercial varieties.
However, due to busy lifestyles, urban Indians are switching to store-bought ghee. The huge demand means a thriving industry, where several manufacturers choose to make it with malai or cream (milk fat) instead of curd. Adulteration is common with many players relying on hydrogenated vegetable oil, and even animal fat.
But the process seems tedious. Is there an easy way out?
Get your hands on the best unsalted, cultured butter there is. It eliminates the process of making curd, which in turn saves time and effort. Godbole recommends using organic brands as they are known to have less water content, and do not splutter during the process. “Look for Amish butter, which in my experience, gives better results,” adds Godbole, who has her own recipe for making ghee.
If I do make ghee, what can I do with the leftover brown bits after straining it?
Ghee residue has a hint of crunch, and an aftertaste that’s sour in a good way. You can use it to make sweets like ladoo or barfi, but it tastes equally good on toast with a sprinkle of sugar, or on steaming hot rice with a pinch of salt. (If you want other ideas, food blogger and photographer Kankana Saxena has plenty.)
If ghee does not require refrigeration, can it go bad?
Not really. It can keep for almost a year if stored in a cool, dry spot. Refrigeration is recommended if you wish to keep it for more extended periods, or use it sparingly. No matter how you store it, always use a clean, dry spoon to scoop ghee out of the jar.
How is ghee used in other cultures?
The ubiquity of ghee in Indian cuisine transcends borders, and provides comfort in other South Asian kitchens. Communities across Pakistan use the wonder fat to prepare the choicest of breads, such as the wedding delicacy , a massive loaf that measures three to four feet wide. “It is truly integral to the recipe as the loaves are heaped up in a karahi, or wok, and soaked in ghee, and later, topped with more ghee,” explains Maryam Jillani, a food writer who grew up in Islamabad and now lives in Manila. She adds that baqerkhani, a crisp flatbread, is layered with ghee, and busri, a rich breakfast roti, is prepared with ghee and jaggery.
In Bangladesh, ghee is reserved for making special treats. “It is more of a luxurious ingredient,” says Dina Begum, a British-Bangladeshi food writer from London. She uses homemade ghee to fry chunks of ash gourd to make chalkumrar morobba, a sweet preserve, and to make bibikhana pitha and roshbhora, a class of steamed or fried sweets prepared with newly harvested rice. Begum also loves using it for shinnis, sweets made by toasting rice flour in ghee, and combining it with date molasses and fruits on religious occasions. When she cooks with ghee, she adds, the scent evokes memories of her mother’s kitchen.
In countries further west, ghee translates to decadence when it’s used in desserts. It lends an intensely rich flavor to the Egyptian basbousa, and a crisp bite to the addictive Turkish baklava. The Palestinian knafeh gets its crunch from glazing strands of filo dough with ghee.
How did ghee become fashionable?
Ghee has always been an indispensable cooking fat so with pride of place in the Indian kitchen. But it came under the scanner following the USDA low-fat dietary guidelines of 1977, which linked saturated fat (ghee being a primary source) to cardiovascular disease. By the ’80s, vegetable oil brands had taken their cue, positioning their products as “heart-healthy” alternatives. The shift was inevitable, given that “Western ideas,” particularly health and lifestyle trends, have always had an impact on Indian society.
In 2015, the USDA reviewed its guidelines and announced that dietary fat and cholesterol intake didn’t pose that serious a health risk. That same year, TIME magazine named ghee “one of the healthiest foods of all time.”
Ghee got another boost the following year when Rujuta Diwekar, a nutritionist to Bollywood celebrities, published Indian Superfoods, a book that included ghee as one of the many foods that guaranteed holistic well-being. Diwekar, who had built her fame and influence by assisting several A-list actors with her weight-loss programs, had long been an outspoken proponent of ghee. She backed her argument for it with Ayurveda, the ancient Indian philosophy of medicine. In India, a celebrity-crazy nation where show business often shapes culture, ghee soon became fashionable.
The West was quick to catch on to the trend. A number of strict elimination diets — Paleo, Keto, Whole30 — stressed its lactose-free quality, and celebrities like Kourtney Kardashian could be seen drinking ghee daily as if it were some elixir of life. Its ancient origins and traditional use in religious ceremonies were employed to further sway consumers.
“This whole idea about ghee having supreme status in Hinduism, plus the cow being sacred, which had religious overtones, made for an intelligent marketing campaign,” says Aditya Raghavan, an Alberta-based chef and cheesemaker who has consulted for several dairy farms in India.
Why is ghee more expensive than butter?
“Because of the yield. It takes 30 liters of milk to make a kilogram of ghee compared to butter, which requires 20 to 24 liters,” points out Raghavan. The processing costs are typically higher, given that the melting of butter and separation of the milk solids demand labor. The inflation in cattle feed costs, and subsequent hike in the price of milk in India, is also to be accounted for. Artisanal brands have a way to put a price on it — were the cows fed before being milked? Are they allowed to graze in open pastures?
Homemade versus store-bought. How do I choose?
Homemade ghee triumphs, hands down. But if you end up shopping for it, look for brands that are minimally processed and, ideally, put care into their sourcing and production. One of the more successful ghee brands in the U.S. is Pure Indian Foods, which Sandeep Agarwal, a fifth-generation businessman with roots in the Indian state of Haryana, founded with his wife, Nalini, in 2008. The Agarwals use milk from grass-fed cows for their ghee, which is made using the bilona method. Sandeep Agarwal sees the influx of brands into the market as a good thing. “It gives us purpose to carry forward this ancient tradition,” he says.
What’s the deal with flavored ghee?
Flavored ghee is infused with spices or herbs, a practice that is rooted in Ayurveda. For the Agarwals, it was a way to introduce Americans to an unknown territory. “We wished to create familiarity, and so we targeted campers, who enjoyed cooking on their travels,” but couldn’t use butter because of the lack of refrigeration, Agarwal says. So he experimented and came up with a few varieties that included an Italian ghee spiced with rosemary, oregano, and thyme, and an herbes de Provence ghee reminiscent of French herbs and lavender blossoms. “Many [campers] reached out to us saying flavored ghee made it easier during camping,” Agarwal says.
Where can I buy ghee?
It’s widely available online, and can also be found in specialty markets. Both Indian and Bangladeshi grocery stores regularly stock ghee.
How can I use ghee in American cooking?
Ghee works well as an alternative to canola or vegetable oil, one that imparts an “indescribable aroma and flavor” to any dish, says Dolphia Arnstein, a food and lifestyle photographer. She follows a 50:50 oil-to-ghee ratio for cooking most of her dishes. “I also use ghee in our morning eggs and pancakes, pastas, lentils, roasted sheet pan veggies, and even to saute shrimp,” she adds.
Godbole, the author of the forthcoming cookbook Masaleydaar: Classic Indian Spice Blends, suggests using ghee interchangeably with butter for sauteeing vegetables, grilling, and slow-cooking meat dishes like roast chicken. “I often make popcorn in ghee instead of butter. Buttered popcorn then just feels greasy in comparison,” she says.
Ghee is also an excellent choice for baking cakes. The Indian Christmas cake is a fine example. In Goa, once a Portuguese colony, the moist baath cake, or bolo de rulao (“cream of wheat cake” in Portuguese), made of coconut, semolina, and ghee, rings in the yuletide spirit. In the erstwhile French colony of Pondicherry, the Christmas cake is made of semolina, rum-soaked nuts and raisins, and ghee. Need more inspiration? Use it to caramelize those sticky upside-down cakes.
Apart from roasts, Manish Mehrotra, the chef behind the New York and New Delhi restaurant Indian Accent, loves how ghee maximizes the flavors of root vegetables in winter. “I also like cooking one-pot rice dishes as it gives a beautiful shine to a pilaf, or an Indian pulao, and even Middle Eastern recipes,” he adds.
In other words, there is plenty that you can do with ghee. Here are a few recipes to get you started:
Monika Manchanda’s Mangalorean Chicken Ghee Roast
Basanti Pulao/ Bengali-Style Sweet Pilaf by Kankana Saxena
Dina Begum’s Bangladeshi Moong Dhal Bhuna
Shruti Raj’s Ghee Cake
Shahi Tukda by Farrukh Aziz
Neha Mathur’s Nankhatai, Indian Shortbread Cookies
Rituparna Roy is an independent journalist based in Bombay. She writes about food culture and origins from east and northeast India. Her work has been featured in publications including Roads & Kingdoms, Whetstone South Asia, Condé Nast Traveller India, Mint Lounge, and the Hindu.
Sophia Pappas is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator.