What Is Ghee?

Uses, Nutritional Data, and How to Make Ghee

A bowl of ghee butter
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Many people have heard of its widespread use in Indian food, but exactly what is ghee? Should you embrace it or be terrified?

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 yellow substance is considered sacred. It is widely used in religious rituals and traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Ghee even serves 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 than animal fats, regular butter, or frying oils when used for cooking. While fanatics of ghee believe in the health benefits and make their own at home, opponents are quick to point out that ghee has a high ratio of saturated fat. The debate on which fats and oils are healthiest to use continues to rage!

Ghee in Indian Food

Much to the frustration of vegans, avoiding ghee altogether 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.

Vegan eateries are fairly easy to find in India, particularly in places where backpacking travelers frequent. These restaurants shouldn't have any animal products, including ghee, on site.

Here are 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 oil, 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

First, there is some good news for people about to travel in India who are worried about dairy allergies. Ghee doesn't always cause problems for travelers! This is because ghee, with its high fat content, contains very little casein — the milk proteins often responsible for allergic reactions.

If you observe a vegan diet, want to limit intake due to allergies, 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. You may just be given a head wobble and left to wonder. 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.

Don't stress too much before your trip: a lot of people who suffer from dairy allergies or lactose intolerance don't have negative responses to ghee.

The Hindi word for ghee is...ghee — surprise! You can also try saying: mayng ghee na-heeng (I do not eat ghee). This may get you some looks. 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.

If figuring out the pronunciations above seems daunting, have an Indian friend write the request on a piece of paper you can show restaurant staff. Again, no guarantees.

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.

Ghee and Lactose Intolerance

Along with having little casein protein, ghee contains only traces of lactose sugar.

People who ordinarily suffer from lactose intolerance can usually handle ghee without problems.

There is a better chance your "Delhi belly" is caused by traveler's diarrhea than the ghee found in Indian food. You'll need to have some serious ninja skills to not get a bad stomach at least once while traveling through India.

Ghee Health Benefits

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. The ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is considered ideal in pure ghee.

Studies show that there is evidence ghee aids in digestion and exhibits anti-inflammatory properties on the bowels.

Ghee is very heavy in vitamin A.

Ghee Nutritional Facts

One tablespoon of ghee contains around:

  • Around 115 calories
  • 14.9 grams of fat
  • 9.3 grams of saturated fat
  • 0 carbohydrates
  • 38.4 milligrams of cholesterol
  • 460.1 IU of vitamin A
  • .42 milligrams of vitamin E

Interesting Facts About Ghee

  • Pure ghee with all water content properly removed 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.
  • Used in moderation, 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 when stored properly, 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. A tiny bit of ghee can be added to morning coffee rather than dairy products for better health.

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.