20 April 2012

Make Your Own Ghee

Gandhi spun thread. I make ghee.

Though our two contexts couldn't be more different (I'm not rallying an entire sub-continent to independence), my guess is that the two activities share more in common than might first be obvious.

The trick with ghee is in the timing. Just as spinning thread façon Gandhi is a slow process, making ghee also cannot be rushed. Speed ghee burns.

In case you are wondering, ghee is clarified butter used in south Asian cooking. Because the milk solids (impurities) have been removed from the butter, it's touted as being lower in fat than regular butter and suitable for those who are lactose intolerant. You can also leave it in a jar on the counter or in the fridge for several weeks (some claim months) without spoiling.

Use ghee just as you would butter or oil — spread it on toast, or use it in your cooking. Ghee has a higher burning point than butter, meaning you can cook with it at higher temperatures, and for longer. You can even make light with it. A cotton wick dipped in a bowl of liquid ghee will burn for hours, and with no waxy build-up.

And the best part, aside from its fabulously rich aroma and taste, is that you can easily make your own ghee at home. You don't need a lot of fancy or specialized equipment, only time.

Here's what you'll need:

- butter, preferably unsalted (use the best quality butter you can find). 1.5 kilos (a little over 3 US pounds) will fill approximately two half-quart jars with ghee.
- a heavy-bottomed pot
- metal spoon
- glass jars
- time

Step One 
Place butter in the pot over a low flame. This is probably the most important thing to remember. Don't think of the dial on your gas/electric range as an accelerator. The butter will melt faster on a higher heat, but it will also burn, ruining the ghee. So keep the flame low throughout the whole process.

Step Two
Allow the butter to melt completely.

Step Three
After about 30 minutes you should begin to see whitish, frothy milk solids rising to the surface. You want to carefully remove these from the pot.

With the backside of my spoon I gently herd the froth to one side of the pot to make it easier to skim off the surface.

After 45 minutes I'm still skimming the milk solids from the surface, but the liquid is beginning to clarify and I can nearly see through to the bottom of the pot.

After 75 minutes of gentle stirring and skimming, the ghee is almost done. There are only a few milk solids left at the bottom, but the ghee is now a clear, golden liquid.

Sometimes at this point I transfer the ghee to another pot and continue heating on low flame to make sure I get all the impurities. You can also strain it through a cheesecloth. Then I transfer it to my glass jars.

An hour and a half is a small investment of time to make for a food product that could literally last months without spoiling. And yet, who can spare this much time these days, aside from retired folks and professional cooks (and even they're always on the go) to stand around and watch butter melt?

In an age where professional and personal productivity, as well as quality of life are frequently reduced to the amount of time it takes to complete a task, it seems unthinkable to "waste" time on such an endeavor.

But if you've never had the pleasure of cooking with, or tasting ghee (it's been described as the "nectar of the Gods"), you just might want to find the time. I might go as far as to say, you can't afford not to. Political and moral arguments aside, Gandhi may have said the same about spinning.

Both require a slow, diligent and uninterrupted effort. Though you have something material to show for it at the end, you might just find that the cotton — or butter, in this case — wasn't the only thing that got transformed in the process.

Happy cooking and most importantly, bon appetit!

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