Manisha Pandit, creator of the popular food blog Indian Food Rocks, is a master behind the stove and camera lens. In her monthly column, she shares Indian recipes and cooking techniques that are as pleasurable to see as they are to swallow.
Today, Manisha demonstrates how to make ghee.
In India, ghee is an essential part of our lives. It is used in cooking, to fuel oil lamps, and to pour into the fire during all manner of ceremonies. It is often treated as a symbol of purity.
Making homemade ghee was as much a part of our daily lives as was making homemade cultured butter. We had raw milk delivered to us every morning. Almost immediately, it was heated gently until it boiled. As it cooled, there was this magical layer of thick cream that floated to the top of the milk. It thickened as the milk cooled. Refrigeration made this layer almost solid and easier to scoop out into a special ceramic pot. Once that ceramic pot was full, a yogurt culture was stirred into it, and it was allowed to sit overnight on the counter.
The next morning, cold water was added to this thick cream yogurt, and it was churned using a ravi, or a wooden churner. As my mother grew older, she perfected the art of making butter in her sturdy Braun blender. It was truly magical to see the mixture slosh around, thicken, and then suddenly have the butter separate and float invitingly at the top. (The best treat at this time would be boiled eggs mashed with fresh homemade butter and a touch of salt.) The buttermilk would either be cooked or spiced lightly to make a refreshing drink.
This homemade butter would be collected in yet another ceramic pot and stored in the refrigerator until there was enough to be cooked down into ghee. Store-bought butter and ghee came into our lives much later, when we switched to low-fat milk, which was also delivered daily, but by the state's co-operative dairy, not by the milkman.
Making ghee from homemade butter was a long process as the butter had more water content than commercially-produced butter. It was almost unheard of to make ghee at home from store-bought butter primarily because it was expensive. Now, however, it is the closest way to approximate the pure taste of ghee. I add a few cloves or a couple green cardamom pods to the ghee about halfway through the cooking process, just like my mother did. She did it to balance any sour flavors that the homemade butter may have developed as it sat in the refrigerator, waiting to be made into ghee. I do it for nostalgia and because the flavor complements my cooking.
A heavy-bottomed pan, a piece of soft, thin cotton (or even a muslin cloth), a fine-mesh strainer, and low heat are all that is needed to make ghee from commercially produced butter. Select high-quality unsalted butter and cut it into small pieces to ensure that it melts evenly and to prevent scorching.
Making ghee is a process that cannot be rushed. Melted butter should first be brought to a boil over medium heat, and then simmered at the lowest possible temperature to ensure that almost all of the water evaporates from the emulsion, and all the milk solids in the butter separate and caramelize. This caramelization is essential for the resultant nutty flavor of ghee. As the butter simmers, it will have a tendency to bubble and leap out of the pan as the water evaporates. For this reason, do not use a shallow pan.
Store ghee in an airtight glass jar in the fridge. Always use a clean, dry spoon to avoid introducing contaminants and bacteria that can cause ghee to turn rancid.
Ghee is known for its high smoking point, making it an ideal candidate for frying and for use in tadkas. It also brings its nutty flavor to dishes. Make a dal that has a tadka in regular cooking oil, and then make the same dal, but use ghee in the tadka instead of oil, keeping all other ingredients the same. It is quite amazing how ghee can elevate a simple dal to new heights. Keep in mind that ghee is an animal fat and, therefore, is high in saturated fat. Use it in moderation, as you would any other fat, to season your dals and spiced vegetable dishes.
Makes 1.5 cups
1 pound unsalted butter
2 cloves OR 2 green cardamom pods, lightly bruised (optional)
Like this post? See Manisha's previous topic: Rajma.
Photos by Manisha Pandit.
Manisha writes the food blog Indian Food Rocks, spiced with eclectic Indian food and entertaining anecdotes.