I must admit that after writing my last post, I have been suffering that very conflict I spoke of between the desire to dream and rest in the true spirit of winter, and the call to responsibilities that just can’t be ignored. Isn’t that life though? Like all things, we must find the happy medium. So I have been neglecting my ramblings temporarily, though I haven’t been neglecting thinking of you and the ideas I’d like to share. It seems everyday I think of something or experience something that I can’t wait till I have a moment to write about.
Tonight, while I was stirring a pot of ghee on the stove and watching the foam collect on top, it dawned on me what a perfect thing to spread the glory of. What is ghee you ask? To be literal, ghee is clarified butter – butter cooked down until the protein solids separate out and you are left with pure butterfat. In India, they would go a step further and say that the clarified butter must be cooked until the milk solids began to brown on the bottom of the pan, infusing the butterfat with a characteristic smoky aroma and flavor that is lacking in the more Western versions.
So what makes ghee different from butter? For starters, it is just pure butter fat. No lactose, no milk proteins. If you happen to be sensitive to either, you will tolerate ghee just fine. Because the heat sensitive proteins are removed, ghee also has a much higher smoking point than butter and most other oils, meaning that it will heat to much higher temperatures before the fat is oxidized and forms cell-damaging free radicals. For the same reason, it can be stored for many months at room temperature without spoilage (a very important virtue in a tropical climate with no refrigeration).
If you are a typical American who has been hammered over the head your whole life with the “fear saturated fat” campaign, you will probably feel a little hesitant to jump right on the band wagon about eating pure butter fat. I have many things to say to put you at ease. First, in case you haven’t heard, the link between fat consumption and chronic disease is a weak one at that (more to come on this soon). See “Types of Dietary Fat and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Critical Review” for more information. Today, researchers are finding that we must look to the type of fatty acid in order to assess the relative health benefit/risk of a food.
So what kind of fat does ghee have in it? It contains 65% saturated fat, of which 89% is comprised of short chain fatty acids, such as butyric acid. Now before the saturated fat alarm goes off, consider what I mentioned about the type of fatty acid, because it is the long chain fatty acids in saturated fat that tend to clog up arteries. Short chain fatty acids are absorbed directly into the blood stream and metabolized by cells as a fuel source. They strengthen cell membranes, support hormone production, and have antimicrobial properties that support digestive health and immune function. Ghee further contains essential omega 3 and 6 fatty acids ina 1:1 ratio, helping to reduce inflammatory mediators that contribute to inflammatory disorders from cardiovascular disease to arthritis.
If you are still feeling ill at ease, you might like to know that ghee has been found to lower serum cholesterol levels by increasing biliary secretions. It also contains ample amounts of anti-oxidants such as vitamin A, vitamin E and carotenoids that protect against oxidation – particularly of lipids such as cholesterol and cell membranes throughout the body (ie in blood vessels, etc).
In India, ghee is used not only as a highly nutritious food, but as a medicinal panacea. It is believed to enhance agni (digestive fire), thus promoting strong digestion and absorption of nutrients – the foundation of good health. It also lubricates the digestive tract and softens the bowel, helping to promote healthy elimination and reduce bloating. It is cooling and soothing to the tissue and can help to heal inflamed gastric mucosa and ulcerations. It also neutralizes and detoxifies poisons, and helps to break down ama (the toxic build up left over from incomplete digestion) so that it can be eliminated. In the whole body, it is said to nourish and strengthen the tissues – especially nerves, and connective tissue, and enhance life force. Its high absorption rate through the intestinal wall makes it a superb carrier of medicinal herbs and spices, which it is thought to drive deep into the body.
If that isn’t enough to make you drop everything and make ghee, I haven’t talked about the amazing ambrosial flavor it imparts. You might have thought a heaping pile of melting butter on your potato was pure heaven…but you haven’t tried ghee yet. There is nothing quite so delicious and flavor enhancing as a melting dollop of golden ghee. It goes equally well with savory and sweet dishes. And, because it is so flavorful and delicious, you can use less of it than you would butter.
Beyond the kitchen, ghee is used in India as a massage oil to soothe and soften the skin – especially for inflammatory conditions. I have even used it as a facial moisturizer, finding it leaves my skin lustrous and soft with a beautiful glow. Of course, it is so delicious to eat that it seems nearly sacrilegious to waste it on cosmetic purposes.
Making ghee is quite simple – you need only a good saucepan, 1 lbs unsalted butter, and a little bit of time. You will definitely want to splurge on a good quality organic butter that is free from hormones, antibiotics and other such additives – whatever is in the butter will be concentrated into the ghee. Remember also that a cow raised on grass will produce milk far richer in vitamins and minerals, and will have a healthier essential fatty acid ratio than those fed grain. I like Organic Valley Pasture Raised butter myself – though it is salted.
To make, just heat the butter in the saucepan over low heat. It will begin to foam prodigiously, and you will need to continue to simmer it for another good 10-15 minutes. Stir occasionally. After 15 minutes or so, the foam will begin to settle on the bottom of the pan, and will form a nice golden crust there. The ghee at this point will be clear, smell like movie theater popcorn, and will make a slight cracking sound instead of the sizzling it made before. Turn the heat off, and pour carefully through a strainer lined with cheesecloth into a glass container (not plastic). Let cool and then cap. You can store at room temperature for 4-6 months if you are diligent about using only very clean utensils to dip into it with.
If you want to experience the benefits of ghee without cooking it yourself, a good source is Ancient Organics, made from the dairy of grass fed organically raised cows (ancientorganics.com).
Use your ghee to flavor grains, beans and vegetables, as a cooking oil, spread on bread, as a topping on popcorn…the list goes on. The possibilities, as always, are only limited by your imagination.