Inside Our Food

What is Ghee?

As South Asian recipes gain popularity among food enthusiasts beyond the subcontinent, ‘ghee’ is turning into a pantry staple in many kitchens around the world. But what exactly is this flavourful dairy fat and how is it made?

Made by simmering butter to separate out milk solids, ghee is considered to be a traditional cooking fat used commonly in the South Asian region. But despite being synonymous with South Asian cuisine, similar products have also been used by pastoral communities in the Middle East and Africa for thousands of years. Examples of such products include the Ethiopian niter kibbeh, Moroccan smen, Iranian roghan, and meshho from the Assyrian region. 

How is ghee made?

When produced commercially, ghee is obtained by concentrating fat from cow or buffalo milk and applying a suitable thermal treatment. During the thermal treatment, chemical changes occur in the milk fat as the moisture evaporates and remaining proteins and lactose undergo a breakdown.1 The process of making ghee usually involves steam rising from a pan of hot cream, followed by particles of milk solids rising to the surface and then settling to the bottom as browned crumbs. The resultant product is microbiologically stable due to its low moisture content.1

Ghee is a golden cooking fat used commonly in South Asian cuisine.

What does ghee taste like? 

Ghee has a nutty, caramel-like flavour because of flavour compounds such as aldehydes, ketones, and lactones which are created during the simmering process. Several of these compounds are born as a result of a chemical reaction known as the Maillard reaction - the same browning process that creates flavour when coffee is roasted.2 Similar to other cooking fats, if stored incorrectly or left unused beyond its expiry date, oxidation can cause rancid flavours to develop. 

Does all South Asian food contain ghee? 

In many regions of South Asia, ghee is a culturally resonant food product. While conventionally prepared at home by collecting cream from milk, it is now widely available as a commercially manufactured food product throughout the world. However, ghee is not equally popular in all parts of the subcontinent. Affluent communities from regions where cattle rearing is a traditional occupation are more likely to regularly use ghee in their cooking. Those who cannot afford to purchase ghee may substitute it with clarified vegetable oil, known as vanaspati. 

Ghee is also important in some Hindu and Buddhist rituals and is widely used in Ayurveda, a system of alternative medicine practiced in India.3 Some foods that are often eaten or prepared with ghee include khichri (a rice and lentil stew), breads like roti and naan, as well as sweet treats such as halva and laddoo. Foods prepared during festivities often use ghee as well to compliment special occasions. 

Khichiri, a rice and lentil stew often made with ghee.

How to make ghee at home 

Infographic by Paulina Cerna Fraga

Although traditional ghee making involves using dairy cream of a specific consistency, it can also be made using unsalted butter. 

  1. Place desired quantity of butter in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan and simmer it on a low flame. 
  2. Within a few minutes, a frothy layer of milk solids will collect on the surface of the melted butter. 
  3. At this stage, the water will start separating out from the butter, causing some splattering. To help the process along, you could stir the pot gently. 
  4. After a few more minutes, the milk solids will start to settle at the bottom of the pan. Continue to simmer for a minute or two after this happens. 
  5. Remove the pan from heat and allow it to cool down. 
  6. Once cool, strain the butter to separate the slightly browned milk solids. You should be left with a clear, golden coloured liquid.
  7. Store in a clean, airtight container.

Ghee can be stored at room temperature and retains its flavour and aroma for around 6 to 8 months. You can use it for preparing your favourite South Asian and Middle Eastern dishes or even spread it on bread or mix it with warm rice. 

Which dish would you like to use ghee in? Tell us in the comments below!

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