photography: William & Susan Brinson
from What to Eat for How You Feel: The New Ayurvedic Kitchen (copyright Rizzoli)
If I had to choose one staple I couldn’t go without, that would be ghee. It is the magical golden substance that makes everything cook well and taste better. Ghee has been glorified throughout the Vedas, used through centuries in cooking and yogic rituals, and included in numerous Ayurvedic remedies. I am so glad that more and more nutritionists and naturopaths today value ghee’s nurturing properties and recommend it as an essential component of a healthy diet.
Ghee is the deeply nourishing core essence of milk. It has all the micronutrients and antioxidants of butter but without butter’s water, milk protein (casein), and lactose. I’ve met many lactose-intolerant people who do not react to ghee. In fact, cultured ghee helped them repair their gut damage.
There are two types of ghee, depending on how its starting ingredient, butter, is derived: 1) from sweet cream, and 2) from cultured cream. The first type I call “regular” ghee—it is higher in cholesterol and it increases body fat; it is the ghee widely sold and used today. The second type, known as “cultured” or “probiotic” ghee, decreases bad cholesterol and regulates fat metabolism; it is really the best ghee to cook with, but it is harder to find. What distinguishes cultured ghee from even organic store-bought products is the culturing of cream as the first step. The culture infuses the cream or butter with beneficial bacteria, making it easier to digest and thus promoting overall health.
Chemically, ghee is the end result of a clarification process beginning with butter’s three main components: water, milk fat solids, and butter oil. As the butter simmers, the water evaporates, and the nutrients, transfer from the milk fat solids to the butter oil. Once the butter oil clears, it is strained to separate it from the milk fat solids, and the end result is called ghee.
The subtlest requirement for ghee making is a proper environment because ghee is highly absorbent, both physically and energetically. Make your “ghee kitchen” a clean and peaceful space; you may even play a continuous recording of sacred music or chants. Make ghee when you feel happy and settled, free from negative thoughts. Some healers recommend making therapeutic ghee during a waxing moon or a few hours before the full moon, when nurturing energy in the environment is on the rise.
In this recipe, I want to share the traditional secrets for making cultured ghee that I have learned from my one of my Ayurvedic teachers, Vaidya R. K. Mishra. The process of churning your own butter and transforming it into “liquid gold” is not only alchemical; it is truly magical. Note that there are so many ways you can cut corners when making ghee, but if you want the best, curative product, make it without compromise. If you are unable to make your own cultured butter, you can follow my Quick Ghee Making guidelines below using store-bought cultured butter. Making ghee may seem intimidating at first, but with practice it becomes easy and enjoyable. Keep in mind that the larger the quantity, the longer the cooking time.
Makes about 20 ounces ghee
- 4 pints raw or pasteurized organic, grass-fed heavy whipping cream (do not use ultrapasteurized)
- 1 cup plain, full-fat organic yogurt or 2 teaspoons Natren yogurt starter
Utensils and equipment:
- Food processor fitted with the “S” blade or standing mixer set with the wire beaters (a blender does not work well for butter churning)
- 2 mixing bowls
- Rubber scraper
- Heavy 3- or 4-quart pan that heats evenly on all sides
- Wooden cooking spoon
- Dry cheesecloth or flour sack towel
- Dry sieve and a bowl
- Jars for storing
Culturing the cream
Follow the instructions for making Yogurt, but substitute heavy whipping cream for the whole milk. Let the cultured cream chill completely. You will be tempted to stop there and indulge with the delicious, custard-like cream-yogurt—taste a teaspoon as an educational experience, but keep going!
Churning cultured cream into butter
The quantity of cultured cream you churn at a time depends on the volume capacity of the appliance you’re using. Whether churning with a food processor or a standing mixer, fill it with cream-yogurt halfway and turn it onto one of the highest speeds. Within a minute (or a couple of minutes, depending on the volume), the cream-yogurt will transform into thick whipped cream that will gradually loosen up and become sloshy. At this point, turn to the lowest speed (if that’s an option). As it keeps churning and looks more and more buttery, gradually lower the speed to the lowest setting, when the cream breaks and you hear a splashing sound. Now you have produced two marvelous products: the fresh butter and buttermilk. When they have fully separated and the butter clusters into a ball, turn off the churning device.
Transfer the churned butter to a sieve over a mixing bowl. Press the butter between your hands to press and squeeze out the buttermilk as much as possible. You may be tempted to slather some gleaming butter on toast right now, yes? Be patient; you’re not done yet.
Cooking butter into ghee
Place the fresh butter in a 3- to 4-quart heavy pot; turn on the burner to the lowest possible setting. Stir occasionally as the butter melts and starts to bubble. Notice how the three components of butter begin to separate: water will be on the bottom, butterfat will take up most of the pot, and milk fat solids will mostly rise to the top. As the temperature rises to 200°F, the separation will become more and more distinct; the water will bubble up, maybe with a few eruptions. Many cooks skim the foam on top to speed up their ghee making—that’s not the traditional way; it’s best let the foam disappear naturally.
Stir the pot occasionally in order to avoid sediment burning and to help the water evaporate. Thermodynamic physicists will explain why the butter oil resists serious heating until the water is gone. For us cooks, we’re happy as long as the butter is cooking without burning.
When the solids have more or less settled to the bottom (as opposed to floating around), stop stirring from the bottom up. Let the milk fat solids rest at the bottom. Because the water is reduced, the temperature rises faster and the butterfat begins to lose its cloudiness; the large bubbles you saw earlier have turned into thin foam.
The ghee is ready when the butter oil is clear, amber color, and the solids you see on the bottom of the pan are consistent golden brown. You should be able to clearly see the bottom of the pan. Light tan or blackish solids are not good signs. If the solids are mostly tan, keep the ghee in the refrigerator between uses. If the solids have become black, you’ve scorched the ghee and all its healing properties—remorsefully, you will have to discard it.
Straining the ghee
Fold cheesecloth into 8 layers (2 layers if using flour sack towel) and place it in a strainer atop a mixing bowl. From now on, all utensils the ghee comes in contact with must be completely dry, as moisture will spoil the ghee. Carefully pour or ladle the hot ghee through the cheesecloth. You want to do this quickly. If the temperature drops below 200°F, the fatty nutrients so important to the ghee begin to crystallize. Discard the strained solids. To clean and reuse the cheesecloth, soak it in boiling hot water with soap; hand-wash while the soapy water is still warm.
Let the ghee cool for a few minutes, allowing for any air molecules to dissipate. Pour the ghee into glass jars. Put the lids on only when the jars have cooled to room temperature in order to avoid condensation falling in the ghee. Transfer the closed jars to the refrigerator—this will prevent the formation of layers. Once the ghee has solidified, transfer the jars to a dry and dark space such as a cabinet.
Storing the ghee:
Ghee has a long shelf life at room temperature, generally weeks or months, but it’s best to keep the unused jars refrigerated and the jar you’re currently cooking with in the cabinet. Store it in the dark between meals and protect it from even a drop of moisture.
Quick Ghee Making
I am aware that most cooks do not have the time, patience, or motivation to churn their own butter from cultured cream. Quick Ghee is the next best option, but unfortunately it will not grant you the benefit of fresh buttermilk as a by-product. Purchase organic, grass-fed, unsalted cultured butter (Organic Valley’s is excellent) and follow the above instructions for cooking butter into ghee. You can make ghee with regular sweet cream butter, but it will be lacking the probiotic goodness and it will be higher in cholesterol. Whatever butter you use, make sure it is unsalted and organic, ideally grass-fed.