In India’s Hindu culture, food is treated with a religious respect not familiar to us in the west, and among all the forms it takes, that of clarified butter is the most eminent. Known as Ghee in India this clarified butter has come to represent purity and creation. Used to fuel holy lamps and funeral pyres, Ghee has been used for centuries as an offering to the gods and a mainstay in creation and sanctification rituals.
A divine product, Ghee features heavily in Hindu mythology and has a divine origin story both weird and mystical. As the tale goes Prajapati, Lord of the Creatures, rubbed his hands together to form the first Ghee. He sprinkled his creation into the flames of a fire, creating his descendants in the flames. Upon closer inspection, the line seems to be hazy on the difference between ghee and semen and are used interchangeably throughout Hindu mythology. With this in mind, re-examining all the tales that involve butter, and there are a surprising amount of butter stories (or maybe it’s unsurprising) makes for a rather disquieting and distinct shift in mood.
A young Krishna was said to be very fond of Ghee as a child, his enormous consumption of the stuff was rumored to be the very thing that fueled his intellectual powers and spiritual development.
Here we see the ample form of the infant Krishna elbow deep in the ghee bowl again, a look of dazed confusion on his face, or perhaps that’s the look one assumes when the blood circulation throughout the entire body has been cut off from too much jewelry.
A more practical and significantly less suggestive version of Ghee’s origin advocates that butter was first created on horseback. At one point in history, many tribes were nomadic and long journeys atop horses or camels were not unusual. Milk generally carried in animal skin sacks, may have first been churned as it was transported over rough terrain, the extended agitation from the long journey turning the cream into butter.
Expansion of the northern tribes brought butter into the southern region of the subcontinent. Ordinarily, butter spoils in only ten days if left unrefrigerated. In colder climates, this was generally not a problem but in warmer regions storing butter became an issue. In order to prevent the butter from going rancid, they began to clarify it, cooking it down until the water had evaporated and the solids had separated. The golden liquid that remained was Ghee.
The Irreproachable Ghee
There is a distinct class system in India and the lines of separation are unmistakable. Along with the people, food is ranked and categorized into four grades: raw, superior cooked, inferior cooked, and finally garbage. These foods instead of being based on the caliber of ingredients or the technical skill with which they are prepared are classified based on the hands that prepared them. If someone from a lower caste has prepared the meal, his mean rank is enough to make the food “inferior” rendering it inedible by anyone from a caste above. Unpalatable by association. Only ghee has the power to transcend the echelons of society. Inferior food cooked in the irreproachable substance that is ghee is suddenly transformed into the superior and is edible by any rank even the holiest of them, the Brahman.
Coming to America
In the 1950’s American dairy farmers were faced with a surplus of butter amounting to 260 million pounds. How such staggering excess seemingly crept up on the country’s farmers has yet to be discovered but creep it did. In an effort to unload the fat, an issue we are still struggling with today, America decided to make Ghee and sell it to India claiming that “Ghee is more a part of everyday life in India than the sandwich is in America.”
In one accord, the US Dept. of Agriculture sent a dairy expert to India to feel out the potential buyers and the New York Times commissioned their only ethnic journalist at the time, RK Narayan, to write an article educating Americans as to what Ghee actually was. In a piece titled “Ghee is for Good” where Narayan totally disregards the correct pronunciation of the subject of his article, he does manage to wax eloquent on the virtues of clarified butter. Comparing it to a fine wine, a genius born to doltish parents, and ambrosia for the gods all in the same paragraph. Going on to equate the morals of a human based on the integrity of the ghee he uses and offers to his guests, Narayan gave the hard sell to the entire country.
Though R.K. gave his best to sell the virtues of ghee to his readers and “build bridges between the two countries” the plan never ended up going through.
The Superior Fat
The act of clarifying butter into Ghee does a number of things. Firstly, the removal of the milk solids allows Ghee to achieve one of the highest smoking points of all oils 485℉, making it ideal for almost all cooking applications. The slow and low method of cooking also lends it a nutty sweet flavor described as “butterscotchy”. The elimination of milk solids also allows ghee to be stored unrefrigerated for months without turning rancid, and if refrigerated, can potentially be stored for the rest of eternity.
Said to protect the digestive system, lower inflammation, and contain huge quantities of vitamins: E, D, and A. Those who are lactose or casein-sensitive may even partake in the wonder that is Ghee thanks to the processing method which removes both allergens. Through the miraculous transformation brought about by heat, Ghee would seem to rival the health benefits of kale or chia seeds.
“This is the secret name of Butter:
Tongue of the gods,” “navel of immortality.”
We will proclaim the name of Butter;
We will sustain it in this sacrifice by bowing low.
These waves of Butter flow like gazelles before the hunter…
Streams of Butter caress the burning wood.
Agni, the fire, loves them and is satisfied.”
-Rg Veda, 1500 BC
1 lb.Unsalted Butter, preferably from grass-fed cows
*When making Ghee, assume that you’re going to lose a bit less than 20% of your volume of butter. So if 1 stick of butter is half a cup, 8 sticks of butter should equal a quart, and 16 sticks would equal two quarts.
Cut the sticks of butter into 1-inch pieces and place into a heavy bottomed pan. Allow the butter to melt on medium-low heat so as to avoid burning the milk solids.
While the butter is melting fold a piece of cheesecloth over on itself three or four times. Situate the cloth snuggly into the center of a mesh strainer and set it over a bowl.
After the butter melts it will start to bubble and separate and you will see the white milk solids float to the surface of the melted butter. Allow the butter to continue cooking until the milk solids sink to the bottom and you can see a distinct separation: the solids on the bottom and the clear fat on top. At this point, you have Clarified Butter!
Continue to cook until the white solids on the bottom of the pan have turned a golden brown lending your butter a toasted nutty flavor. This is also referred to as Beurre Noisette French for brown butter.
Allow the browned butter to cool for several minutes before pouring it through your cheesecloth/strainer. Strain the butter and allow the Ghee to cool completely it should change from a clear golden liquid to a solid cloudy jar of butter. According to Narayan Pure Ghee “must be slightly yellow in color and when solidified have the granulation of sand”.
You should have about a 1-2 Tablespoons of toasted milk solids left over from this. Instead of throwing them away add them to a batch of chocolate chip cookies for an amazing browned butter flavor, or try your hand at making any of these Indian Desserts.
Use your Ghee in any and every application from frying eggs to making curry, and remember a little goes a long way.