A major ingredient used in much of Indian cooking is a special type of clarified butter called "Ghee." Today, it's actually quite difficult to find affordable, high quality ghee in the stores. In many cases checking the label of the "ghee" you'll find that it's made with vegetable oils and is very high in the very bad for you trans-fatty acids. Compare this to "real" ghee made at home which is chock full of goodies like (among other great things) Omega 3 and Omega 9 fatty acids, and vitamins A, D, E and K. And zero trans-fats.
History of Ghee:
Ghee has been around in Asian cultures for as long as history. In many countries, over 5000 years ago, it was used in sacrifices because of its value to the people, and in Hinduism there's even a hymn that mentions it.
Prior to refrigeration, saturated fats (an absolute vital part of the human diet) were difficult to come by. If you weren't regularly consuming animal meats that weren't too lean, you could find yourself with the inability to absorb certain nutrients, and actually "starve" to death even though you were eating plenty of greens. It didn't take us long to start consuming the milk of domesticated animals, which is chock full of healthy fats. The problem though is that without refrigeration, milk goes bad. We found a number of methods to preserve that precious milk fat with the invention of cheeses and butter. But butter still had a very limited shelf life, and cheese took a significant amount of work and expertise to prepare.
Enter the Ghee.
By separating off the sugars (lactose) and the solids from the butter, you end up with a very, very stable, very "buttery" fat that is shelf-stable at room temperatures, and will only go rancid (oxidize) if exposed to air for a long time (since bacteria can't survive in the ghee, it doesn't actually rot). And did I mention that it tastes amazing?
Rancidity is the oxidation of food, where free radicals break down the food at the molecular level, usually caused by the oxygen itself ("reactive oxygen species" is the technical term). Oxidation is basically a chain-reaction caused by missing electrons. One atom in a molecule is missing an electron so steals one from a nearby atom. That atom is now missing an electron so steals one from another atom, and so on. This chain reaction happens about a billion times per second which destabilizes the molecule until it breaks down. The molecules broken into their base forms doesn't make the food dangerous to eat, but certainly wrecks the flavor, texture, and the nutritional content.
Ghee contains a bunch of natural fat-based antioxidants, such as Vitamin E, various phosphatides, and conjugated lineolic acid (CLA is a nutritional requirement that's very difficult for vegetarians to get into their diet). These antioxidants carry an extra electron. This means when the chain reaction of free radicals comes into contact with an antioxidant, the free radical reaction is stopped cold. With the ability to stop free radical reactions, as well as the inability for bacteria to grow in it (bacteria eat sugars, not fats), this means that a well-sealed container of ghee should theoretically last indefinitely. Without refrigeration. (Note that it will last longer stored in a dark location. Bright lights can actually trigger free radical reactions as well.)
Starting to see why it's been so popular for over 5000 years? "Preppers" like ghee for the same reason that the Asians from 5000 years ago liked it: Long-term storage of healthy milkfats and vitamins without refrigeration. But even if you take that out of the equation, it still tastes amazing!
Step 1: Uses of Ghee
Now, take a pad of butter and place that in the same pan at the same temperature. (Image 2) You can see that even before the butter finishes melting, it's already starting to burn. By the time the butter has fully melted, the proteins and sugars have charred significantly (Image 3).
This burnt goo is quite sticky. Not only does this impart a distasteful "burnt butter" flavor to your food, but if this pan weren't ceramic, the food would then start to stick to the bottom of your pan. Anyone who has tried using fresh butter to cook an egg has had to deal with the frustration of the eggs sticking to the pan if the pan isn't just hot enough to cook the egg instantly while still being just cold enough not to scorch the butter. In my case, the ceramic pan is very non-stick, which gives me another problem. The burnt goo that doesn't stick to the pan now sticks to the food. This makes the food even more burnt tasting and more greasy.
The high smoke point of ghee (485oF) compared to that of butter (250-300oF) makes it far superior for cooking. Even extra virgin olive oil (375oF) can't compete.
The flavor of good ghee is very unique. Obviously quite buttery, but a little sweeter, and in some cultures, they even add spices to the ghee to flavor it further. I prefer just the plain stuff though.
Ghee can be used in most places where you would normally use butter (see later caveat about baking), or in most situations as a substitute for oil. I've never tried deep-frying in ghee, but I'd imagine it'd make the butter flavor a little overwhelming, but hey, if you give it a shot, let me know.
Obviously for frying foods in a pan, it can't be beat. Onions caramelized in ghee are amazing. Numerous cuisines use it for cooking, and in the worst case scenario, suppose you leave the jar open for months at a time, and it does actually go rancid (I don't know how long this would take. I've never had one go rancid) you could actually use it to make soap (if you don't mind smelling a little bit like a movie theater).
My wife recently made miniature banana-nut bread loaves, and instead of buttering her pan with butter like she normally does, she decided to give the ghee a shot. When every single loaf fell out of the pan without any work, she was immediately sold for life. Usually she makes an extra dozen loaves, expecting a good number of them to break in the pan during extraction.
Try mixing some ghee in a 1:2 ratio of ghee to honey, and add a sprinkle of cinnamon. Spread that on a slice of whole wheat bread for a quick snack that isn't absolutely horrible for your hips!
As if all of this wasn't enough, there's yet another advantage to removing the sugars from ghee. Sugars in milk are better known as "lactose." And anyone with severe lactose intolerance can tell you that butter is one of the many things they've had to avoid in life. With ghee, the lactose is removed, and even the lactose intolerant can enjoy some crabs dipped in butter now!
So here's the highlights for ghee in no particular order:
1.) Far more healthy for you than most oil sources (including crisco, margarine, vegetable oils, etc.) containing tons of healthy vitamins and fatty acids without the trans fats.
2.) Can replace oils in almost any recipe
3.) Is far more non-stick than butter.
4.) Has a very high smoke temperature.
5.) Non-refrigerated storage for significant amounts of time.
6.) Safe for the lactose intolerant.
Now here's another curve-ball for you. Studies have even shown that used topically, a honey and ghee mixture can be used to cure difficult to cure injuries! While the reason for this has yet to be proven, I suspect that it has to do with the antimicrobial properties of the honey, combined with the necessary fats and vitamins found in the ghee that encourage the lesions to heal.
Step 2: Melt the Butter
Make sure you use unsalted, regular butter. If it's labeled as "Unsalted Sweet Cream Butter" this will work just fine.
Again, with 16 sticks of butter, this should give me 2 full quarts of butter. After rendering it down, though, you'll see that I had one full quart (not pictured) of ghee and just over half of the second quart (Image 3).
Bring your temperature to about medium heat, and let the butter melt down. You don't want the temperature too high, or just like we saw in the ceramic pan, the sugars and proteins will start to burn before the butter gets a chance to clarify.
Step 3: Simmer the Butter.
Bring the temperature up until you get an easy boil, not a rolling boil. You should hear the pops of the water bubbles as they release from the bottom of the pan and come to the top. (Image 2) Just let this simmer at this temperature anywhere from half an hour to 45 minutes.
Step 4: Clarify the Butter
Use a thin mesh sieve to skim off the foam that has gathered at the top. (Image 2) While this won't change the flavor of the ghee, it will make it much easier to filter later, and will also allow you to see to the bottom of the pan so you can see when the ghee is finished.
Step 5: Caramelize the Sugars
Once the sugars at the bottom have become a good reddish-brown caramel color, you're done. You'll smell it before you see it. The house will actually start to smell like you're cooking caramels! This sugar (lactose) is what triggers the irritable bowels for the lactose intolerant. By removing it, but still imparting the flavor, they can now have the best of both worlds! The buttery flavor without the side effects!
As soon as your sugars have caramelized, it's time to take the ghee off the heat. They will burn quickly, so don't just turn the heat off and leave the pan in place, physically remove the pan from the heat to stop the caramelization before the sugars burn. You'll only have about a 60 second window to go from "perfectly caramelized" to "burnt" so keep a close eye on it.
Step 6: Filter the Ghee
Science Note: If you want your Ghee to last even longer, crush some Vitamin C pills into a powder, and lightly coat the inside of your jar with that powder before filling it. For as long as the Ghee has antioxidants to stop free radical reactions, it will remain stable. However, with enough time, depending on the conditions, the Ghee will eventually run out of antioxidants to stop those reactions, and then it will go rancid. Also keep in mind that many of the antioxidants will have been broken down simply by the heating of the butter. By adding antioxidants in the form of Vitamin C (even if it is "fake" synthetic Vitamin C) you are adding that many more antioxidants to stop the free radical reactions. Once the Ghee has cooled but before it solidifies, shake the jar to get the Vitamin C mixed thoroughly.
The finished ghee should be mostly yellow with the slightest hint of orange. I'll pretend it looks more like apple juice, but you can see from the picture that there's a much more accurate descriptor for how it should look, but one I would prefer not to use in describing food. Let's just say it looks like something you may need for certain high-level job interviews. (Image 2) If it's darker than this, and moving into the "brown" colors, you'll lose that sweetness and begin to get a slightly bitter "burnt" flavor. It's still perfectly edible though.
For 2 quarts of ghee, you'll probably go through half a dozen coffee filters, having to replace them each time the sugars clog the pores and bring the filtering process to a halt. (At about $8 per 1,000, I won't try to estimate the costs here...) For this reason, I'd recommend doing small batches, no more than 2 full quarts (about 20 sticks of butter) at a time. This way the ghee doesn't cool off before you can get it all filtered. (Though I suppose if you have enough sieves, you could be filtering multiple jars at once.)
For two quarts of butter, you'll end up with slightly more than one and a half quarts of ghee. (I did do 48 sticks of butter once, and ended up with just shy of 11 quarts of Ghee). I was able to buy my butter for roughly $2 per box (4 sticks) so I ended up with just over one and a half quarts of ghee for $8. I challenge you to find a better price online, particularly one that doesn't have preservatives added.
Step 7: Enjoy!
If you're filling jars to store the ghee long term, fill the jars all the way to the top, having the least possible amount of air in the jar that you can. Even if you have the ghee over-run the top a little when the lid is put on, that's a good thing. While a little bit of air won't necessarily cause the ghee to go rancid, the more air in contact with the ghee, the more Vitamin E will be consumed destroying the free radicals while it's stored. So if you spill a couple teaspoons squeezing every bubble of air out of the jar, it'll be worth it.
As the ghee cools down, you'll get a good, strong, airtight seal on the jar, and you can stuff it away for a rainy day several years down the road.
If you're like me and you end up with a jar that has this much air in it, this wouldn't be a good candidate for long-term storage. This jar sits right on our counter and we use it every day. The flavor it imparts to our morning eggs is amazing, and when my wife gets to greasing her pans for baking, she's stopped reaching for the butter all together. As a side-note, while ghee can be used to completely replace butter in some recipes (such as cookies) and makes an excellent replacement for anything calling for oil, it seems to be less effective as a butter replacement in things that need to be "flaky" (pie crusts) or "light" (cakes). So some experimentation would need to be done there to eliminate butter from our refrigerator all together.
So as you can see, Ghee isn't just for South-Asian cuisine, but is something everyone should consider keeping in their pantry! Enjoy, and I'd be interested in hearing about anyone else's experiences with it!