What Is Ghee and How Is It Different from Butter?

Ghee, a type of clarified butter, is used widely across South Asia. But what exactly is it? And what can it be used for? Read on for the whats and hows of this versatile fat, and for a foolproof recipe for homemade ghee.

a photo of a jar of ghee with a wooden spoon scooping out some
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Ghee is thought to have originated in the Indus Valley around 8,000 years ago, and is a South Asian pantry staple. In recent years, ghee has started to become more widely used in the West. Learn how to bring this ancient, versatile fat into your modern kitchen.

What is ghee?

Simply put: Ghee is a South Asian clarified butter made by separating butterfat from the milk solids and water in butter. "The French clarified butter is made by melting fresh butter, then straining the clear butter off from the milk residue that has settled at the bottom of the pot," writes Julie Sahni in her germinal 1980 cookbook, The Art of Indian Cooking. "'Usli ghee,' [or literally 'authentic ghee,'] is also begun by melting fresh butter, but is then kept at a simmer for a long time, to allow the moisture present in the milk solids to evaporate." So, ghee is like clarified butter except slightly more concentrated because the extended simmer time allows more water to evaporate, which deepens the flavor imparted from the milk solids.

What does ghee taste like?

Ghee has a slightly nutty, almost caramel-like flavor. It has a lighter, but grainier, mouthfeel than butter.

How is ghee different from butter?

Because the milk solids have been strained out, ghee has a much higher smoking point (465°F) than butter (302°F), and can be stored in a pantry when unopened, just like oil, because it's almost all fat. Both are solid at room temperature and, nutritionally, ghee and butter are almost identical—deriving almost 100% of their calories from fat. But, because ghee is clarified, it contains neither casein (the dominant protein in milk) nor lactose, making it easier for those with lactose intolerance to digest.

Can I buy ghee?

Ghee can be purchased from wholesale retailers, in large grocery stores and online. (This wasn't always the case: Ghee was once considered a specialty ingredient and only available in South Asian or Middle Eastern grocery stores.) Swad brand ghee is available at Walmart for about $12 for 16 fluid ounces. Some other commonly available brands of ghee include Pure Indian Foods, 4th and Heart, Tin Star Foods and Organic Valley.

How do I make ghee?

Easily! Melt 1 cup of unsalted butter (2 sticks or 226 grams) in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. As the butter begins to release moisture, a thin layer of white foam will form on its edges, and the butter will begin to crackle. Allow it to simmer until the crackling sound stops and the foam subsides, about 10 minutes; this means the water in the milk solids has evaporated. As soon as the solids turn brown (within a few minutes), turn off the heat and allow the brown residue to settle. When the ghee is cool to the touch, strain the clear liquid through a cheesecloth into a jar. Once the ghee has cooled completely, cover the jar tightly. Homemade ghee can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

How do I use ghee?

In South Asian cooking, ghee is ubiquitous. It's used as a base for tadka, or a mix of spices and herbs bloomed in fat. Ghee is brushed on hot flatbreads, like roti and naan. It's stirred into rice and lentil dishes and drizzled over saag or bharta. Ghee is also often an integral ingredient in South Asian desserts.

Ghee can be a tasty swap for butter or vegetable oil in many recipes, South Asian or otherwise. Cook eggs or pancakes in ghee, or smear it on a slice of sourdough or a bagel. Use it to sauté vegetables and seafood, or to deep-fry fritters. Stir it into oatmeal or brush it over grilled meats. Ghee is also an excellent choice for baking, as in shortbread, or as a caramelizing agent for upside-down cakes.

Are there substitutes for ghee?

Depending on the recipe, you may require a substitute that has a slightly nutty flavor, a high smoking point, is high in fat, or has a thick consistency. Butter is the ideal replacement for ghee since butter is used to make ghee. As for vegan alternatives:

  • Coconut oil is a good substitute for ghee in baking.
  • For most cooking applications, extra-virgin olive oil is a good swap.
  • Sunflower oil has a high smoking point, making it a fair substitute in recipes that call for deep-frying.

Bottom line

Ghee is a type of South Asian clarified butter and can be used as a substitute for a variety of fats and oils across cuisines. It's both casein- and lactose-free, making it suitable for those with lactose intolerance. Billions of people have been enjoying ghee for millennia—join the party.

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