by Deb Powers
In January 2018, the Chicago Tribune enthused “Ghee will be the superfood ingredient of 2018 and we’re here for it.” The Daily Meal column cited reports of ghee’s healthful benefits, along with the delicious flavor it imparts to foods, as evidence that ghee is truly deserving of its moment in the spotlight. So what is ghee, and why should you be eating it instead of butter?
What Is Ghee?
Ghee is often compared to clarified butter, but it’s more like a super-clarified butter that is ubiquitous in Indian cooking. Both are made by heating butter slowly over low heat until the water and milk solids separate from the fat, leaving behind a rich, golden oil. The difference is in degree. When you clarify butter, you heat it until the milk and water separate from the oil, leaving you with a layer of golden oil atop a layer of milky water. Pour off the fat layer, and you’ve got clarified butter. Ghee takes the process a step further, continuing to cook until all of the water has evaporated and you have a layer of caramelized milk solids in the bottom of the pan. The rich layer of fat floating on top is ghee.
The Role of Ghee in Ayurvedic Wellness
Ghee has a long history of use in Indian and Pakistani cultures and is a staple of Ayurvedic medicine, both internally and externally. The purified butterfat is high in antioxidants, and, according to researchers from the Shri Rawatpura Sarkar Institute of Pharmacy, the human body can digest 96 percent of ghee made from cow milk. It’s also an excellent carrier oil for other herbs because it’s so readily absorbed by the skin. Among other things, Ayurvedic practitioners recommend ghee to strengthen the immune system, improve brain function, lubricate joints and internal organs, and heal wounds — including internal ones, such as ulcers — enhance digestion and promote longevity.
The Surprising Health Benefits of Ghee
Western researchers are also discovering the health benefits of ghee. In addition to being rich in antioxidants, ghee may also:
- Boost immune system function
- Support healthy brain functioning through a unique form of vitamin D
- Help heal your gut through the anti-inflammatory properties of butyric acid
- Help you lose weight, thanks to its high content of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been associated with higher weight loss in studies
- Improve your cholesterol profile
Ghee vs. Butter - What’s the Difference?
So what difference does it make when you remove the water and milk solids from butter — and when you cook it even longer to make ghee? Quite a lot, as it turns out, and not just in one area. First, a couple of basic facts: while we think of butter as a fat, it’s really only about 80 percent fat. The rest of it is a mixture of water and the proteins in milk. When you separate those out, several things happen.
- Ghee has more calories than butter — but not much. Butter has about 102 calories per tablespoon to ghee’s 120.
- Ghee has a higher smoking point than butter. When you get rid of the water and milk, you can heat oil to much higher temperatures, making ghee a better choice for sautéing and frying foods. Ghee’s smoking point of 485 degrees Fahrenheit is higher than those of most oils commonly used for cooking, including olive oil, coconut oil, and vegetable shortening.
- Even though it’s a dairy product, ghee is lactose-free — you’ve removed all the milk solids, remember? That makes it more tolerable to people who may have trouble digesting dairy.
- Ghee has a much richer, deeper, nuttier flavor than butter, clarified or not. Try it on a bowl of popcorn or some rice to taste the difference for yourself. Then imagine the depth of flavor that ghee imparts to anything you cook with it.
- Because it contains no milk or water to spoil, ghee has a much longer shelf life than butter — and it needs no refrigeration. According to Does It Go Bad?, an opened jar of ghee will keep in the pantry for up to three months and in the refrigerator for up to 12 months. If you freeze it — and it freezes well — you can extend its shelf life almost indefinitely.
Unlike so many other good-for-you wonder foods, ghee also does culinary magic. Whether you have a come-to-ghee moment because of its health benefits or its lush, umami-enhancing flavors, you’re going to love what ghee does for your body and your cooking.
Deb Powers is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about natural foods and wellness. Part of her work with a local food policy advisory council focuses on truth in labeling and food origin labeling laws.