Ghee, or Indian clarified and caramelized butter, is hard to relay in a recipe. There are many visual and aromatic cues to watch out for, and all are subject to interpretation. Learning how to make ghee in my family, like most other things, has always been show, not tell. When my parents were newlyweds, they went to India. My mother spent much of the time observing in the kitchen with my relatives. When I learned, I brought my camera along. Now, four years later, I’m attempting a written version for public consumption. So we’re breaking new ground here. Why? Because ghee kicks butter’s ass.
I’m documenting the process for you (at length, uh), in the hopes that some will be adventurous and go ahead and try it. I made this ghee three times, a true Goldilocks process, before getting it absolutely perfect. But all three are delicious. Ghee doesn’t disappoint.
It’s wicked easy once you understand how butter cooks. You’re basically clarifying butter, then letting it cook longer until the milk solids caramelize, giving it the unique nutty flavor and sweet aroma only found in ghee.
Clarifying butter, like many other processes in cooking, was borne out of a need to preserve. The process separates the milk solids from the butter fats, resulting in a much longer shelf life. In India, refrigeration is generally not an option, and by taking their butter one step further, it has a shelf life at room temperature for up to 1 year. Indians, my relatives among them, claim if it’s made by expert hands it will last 100 years.
Ghee vs. Butter
According to Ayurveda, ghee is very rejuvenating, and has many health-giving properties. Ghee is the most easily digestible of the cooking fats and oils. Contrary to popular Western belief, ghee is not simply something yummy to spread on toast or cook with potatoes. It is a staple in India, and can be used as a substitute for butter or oil in cooking when the dish is going to be served warm or hot. Ghee, like most oils, can be cooked at higher temperatures than butter without burning, but due to its lower melting point, it’s not the best fat to bake a cake with.
How to make ghee
2 pounds unsalted butter, easier if in blocks (or check out our post on how to make butter!)
Heavy-bottomed sauce pan
Unbleached fine cheese cloth
Glass container with clasping lid that can withstand heat
Purchasing unsalted butter in blocks instead of sticks makes the unwrapping process much easier. Ghee, like butter, tastes differently depending on the source. So don’t go out and buy cheap butter just because you’re making it in bulk. Remember, the ghee will last for a year. Even if you cook it a little too long or not enough, as long as you didn’t burn it, keep it. If it’s overcooked, taste it once it sets. On the flip side, if the milk solids didn’t caramelize, you made clarified butter. So congrats, just store it in the fridge and use it within 1-2 months.
When you stir the butter, you need to glide your spoon across the bottom of the pan, and scrape up any of the milk solids that have settled so they don’t stick and burn. This is important from the point when the butter starts boiling on. Making ghee is a patient, observant, and peaceful process, so let it be just that.
To measure doneness, check the photo to the left. The first row in the color chart is the liquid once it’s been strained into the container, and the second row is right before it’s removed from the heat. You can see the color is retained. You’re looking for the butter to go from yellow (on the left), to a slight orange (middle column). If it gets to the darker brown (right column), you’ve gone a little too far.
Note on time:
If you’re using less butter, this process will go faster. It also depends on the diameter of your pan. A smaller pan will cook the butter more slowly, but require more attention. But if the pan is too big and the butter too thinly dispersed, the ghee can easily stick and burn. For two pounds, a 10″ sauce pan is just perfect. So you can adjust from there.
Step 1 – Unwrap the butter and setup shop
Unwrap the butter and cut into chunks (4 or 5 per stick, etc). Heat the butter on medium-low to low in the sauce pan. Set a timer for 45 minutes.
Fold your cheese cloth so there are four layers, and lay it in the strainer. Don’t wait until the last minute to do this, as there won’t be time! Place the bottle in the sink, and set the strainer propped in its mouth.
Step 3 – Butter begins to froth and then boil
Within the next 5 minutes, the butter will begin to froth. Give it a stir, and continue stirring every minute from now on. Glide your spoon across the bottom at this point, and kick up the milk solids.
Around 15-18 minutes, the butter will start to boil, and continue for the next 7-10 minutes, first hard, then more gently. Stir consistently. After about 30 minutes, the boil will slow. The butter will start to smell like clarified butter, and you’ll want to dunk a lobster in it.
Step 4 – Milk solids separate
At this point (30-35 minutes), the sea of foam will part, and the milk solids will begin to clump together. Watch the edges of the pan at this point. You will notice their change in color as the milk solids cook and finally caramelize. The aroma will be stronger still, but still like butter.
Step 5 – Milk solids begin to caramelize
The last 8-10 minutes, you need to watch the edges of the pan carefully, and observe the change in color. Continue to stir and scrape. The surface should be mostly clear. If you’re unsure of where things are at, scoop up some solids from the bottom and check its color. If it’s still white or light tan, you’ve got 5 more minutes to go. You are waiting for the butter to turn into a beautiful orange color, the milk solids to caramelize into a light-to-medium brown, and most noticeably, fizzy bubbles to form on the surface of the butter. The aroma will change slightly, smelling more sweet and caramel-y. Be ready with your strainer.
Step 6 – Those fizzy bubbles, strain!
Once bubbles begin to form on the surface, right around 45 minutes, pull up some solids from the bottom and check the edges. They should be medium brown. Take the butter off the heat immediately and strain, as it will continue to cook until you get it out of the pan. When straining, you can dump all of the brown solids on top of your cheese cloth, but make sure none gets into the ghee. You will have a tiny film on the bottom, but ah, c’est la vie. It’ll still keep for a year.
Step 7 – Patience, it needs to set
Keep the lid open until it completely cools (left, cooled; right, just strained and still hot). Setting can take up to 12 hours. Eat it, love it, become converted like me. Ghee rules.
Now that you’ve made ghee, find out where to go from here.
Note on the finished product:
Once it is set, you should have a smooth, light golden color (properly cooked it’s more gold than yellow from the caramelization) solid that is uniform throughout. It should stay solid at room temp (65-75F).
………Troubleshooting – What went wrong?………
My ghee smells burnt and is dark amber in color. This means you cooked the ghee a little too long and in the process burned the milk solids, which gives the ghee a burnt taste. This is the only case, really, where you’d want to toss your ghee and start again. If you do, make sure to cook the ghee on a low temperature and really watch for a color change. Turn on all the lights and look into the pot!
I can only find salted butter. You can still make delicious ghee with salted butter. And no, it won’t be salty.
The butter will froth a bit more during the steps in the instructions where I would indicate it should bubble. Make your ghee in a slightly larger pot to prevent the froth from overflowing, and give it a stir when it does froth up to bring it down in volume. If you’re worried about overflow, you can also just take it off the heat for a moment and stir and things will calm down. The resulting ghee will taste fabulous but have a slightly gritty texture. Also, those milk solids, don’t eat ‘em. That’s where all the salt will go! Pour those puppies down the drain.
I can only find butter with emulsifiers and other ingredients in it. I would not suggest making ghee from anything other than real, pure butter. I would not suggest making it from spreadable butters, those with emulsifiers or added vitamins, minerals, you name it. Anything that gives it texture will turn gummy and gross in the pan; any added vitamins, etc, will give it an off flavor and probably be destroyed in the process anyways. You just want real, old-fashioned butter. If you can’t find the stuff, here’s a real simple way to make it from cream.
My ghee has separated, or has white spots or is not uniform in color. This is usually a cooling problem. You want to let your ghee sit at room temperature with the lid cocked (to prevent particles falling in) enough to allow the cooling to happen naturally. You don’t want to stick hot ghee in the fridge, put it in front of an open window, or seal it prematurely. All these things aren’t bad, necessarily, but they will affect the color and sometimes cause the liquid to separate from the solid.
But hell, my aunt, who taught me how to make ghee, sometimes makes hers where the liquid and solid are completely separate. And a good friend of ours sells the most delicious ghee and only recently has he been able to streamline the cooling process and prevent little white spots from forming. So don’t fuss too much. It’s all ghee and it’s all good.