What Is Ghee?

Facts, Nutritional Data, and How to Make Ghee

Ghee butter in India
••• Ghee, on the right, can be made by boiling butter down to fat. Dinodia Photo / Getty Images

Many people have heard of its use, but exactly what is ghee?

Ghee is a type of clarified butter used widely in South Asian, Iranian, Arabic, and Indian food. Ghee is revered beyond its culinary uses; the substance is considered sacred and is widely used in sacred rituals and traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Ghee is even used as lamp fuel, especially during the Diwali Festival.

If you've ever enjoyed an authentic Indian meal or tried Pakistani or Iranian food, then you've probably eaten ghee without even realizing.

Ghee has a rich, nutty, strong buttery taste and is used to flavor and fatten foods that would normally require the use of oils.

Ghee is considered more flavorful and healthy than animal fats, regular butter, or frying oils when used for cooking.

Ghee in Indian Food

Much to the frustration of vegans and people with milk allergies, avoiding ghee while traveling in India isn't easy. Many popular Indian foods are fattened and even "blessed" with a brush of ghee, however, its use depends upon the discretion of the restaurant and varies from eatery to eatery.

A few popular Indian favorites usually containing ghee:

  • Roti and naan are sometimes brushed with ghee
  • Biryani Rice
  • Dosa
  • Parathas
  • Kadhi (chickpea gravy)
  • Many Indian sweets and cakes
  • Some daal/lentil soups
  • Potentially any dish calling for butter or cream

Dishes from the Punjabi region of India, particularly Amritsar and northwestern India, often contain generous amounts of ghee.

Ghee can also be found in food from Rajasthan and mountainous places such as Manali.

How to Avoid Ghee in India

If you observe a vegan diet, are allergic to dairy products, or just want to avoid the concentrated saturated fat found in ghee, you can try asking for your food to be prepared without it. In reality, your request may or may not be possible.

Remember that the rules of saving face still apply, and you may simply be told that your food is made without ghee to alleviate your worries.

Interestingly, a lot of people who suffer from dairy allergies or lactose intolerance don't have negative responses to ghee.

Note: The hydrogenated vegetable oils sometimes substituted by restaurants actually contain more heart-unhealthy trans fat than genuine ghee. Research indicates that what we once understood about saturated fats such as coconut oil and ghee isn't true.

The Hindi word for ghee is...ghee — surprise! You can also try saying: mayng ghee na-heeng (I do not eat ghee). The word "ghee" can be substituted with mak-kan (butter) or dood (milk). Alternatively, you can also try saying: mu-je dood kee e-lar-jee hay (I am allergic to milk).

If in South India, the Tamil word for milk is paal.

Ghee Nutritional Facts

Although purported to have many health benefits, ghee is a form of saturated fat. Unlike many other cooking fats, ghee is incredibly rich with fatty acids that get converted directly into energy. Studies show that there are signs ghee aids in digestion and exhibits anti-inflammatory properties on the bowels.

One tablespoon of ghee contains:

  • Around 115 calories
  • 12.73 grams of fat
  • 7.9 grams of saturated fat
  • 33 milligrams of cholesterol
  • 1 milligram of potassium
  • .04 grams of protein

Interesting Facts About Ghee

  • Ghee doesn't have to be refrigerated, only stored in air-tight containers.
  • Ghee is often substituted for oil during deep frying because its smoke point is much higher (482 F / 250 C) than that of many oils.
  • Ghee is reported to help memory functions, ulcers, burn wounds, and even to slow cancer and certain diseases.
  • Although ghee doesn't particularly smell bad, it is rich with butyric acid, a smelly substance used to create stink bombs! The word butyric comes from butyrum, the Latin word for butter.

How to Make Ghee

Because of the many health benefits, lots of people have begun to make ghee at home to use sparingly in dishes that call for butter.

The rich taste and long shelf life make ghee a useful tool to add to your culinary arsenal. Essentially, ghee is just double-cooked butter and is very easy to make at home.

  • Step 1: Start with one pound of butter — just butter. Don't go for one of the processed spreads. Instead, choose butter that is unsalted, unrefined, and sourced from grass-fed cows.
  • Step 2: Cut up the butter. Melt in a saucepan over medium heat then simmer.
  • Step 3: Simmer the butter until it foams (10 to 15 minutes), stirring frequently. Skim the froth from the top (repeat as necessary). When there is less surface movement and the color turns a bright, golden yellow, the ghee is done. Some brown milk solids will remain.
  • Step 4: Let the solution cool for 10 minutes. Use a metal strainer lined with cheesecloth to strain out any remaining milk solids. Store ghee in a jar with a lid that seals tightly.

Ghee doesn't have to be refrigerated and rarely is in India, however, it will last longer (months) once opened if you keep it in the fridge.

Note: The traditional, Ayurvedic formula for how to make ghee requires adding Indian yogurt cultures to the boiled butter after it has cooled slightly, letting it set for 12 hours at room temperature, churning it, then simmering a second time to produce a finished product.