Ghee is a type of fat that has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic cooking. Ayurveda is the 4000 year old Indian system of health and life, and it translates to “life knowledge.” One of the major components of Ayurveda is choosing and preparing foods that keep the body balanced and healthy, which is all based on an individual’s unique constitution of body and mind. In Ayurveda, ghee is a sattvic food, which means it is a food that promotes clarity, harmony, and whole body health. It is used both in cooking and as body/hair oil, and to light lamps and candles for ceremonies. Since it comes from the cow, a sacred animal in India, it is considered to be one of the most healing and pure foods, infused with a positive energy.
Whether you follow ancient or modern health systems, ghee is definitely one of the most healing foods that nature has given us! Unlike man-made fats (ex. margarine, vegetable shortening, canola oil, soy oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil, etc.) which are created by using very high heats, chemicals, and de-odourizers to refine the oil out of vegetable seeds, ghee only needs one ingredient: unsalted butter. The process to make ghee involves simply heating the butter until the milk protein solids fall to the bottom and the milk sugar raises to the top. This process makes ghee safe to consume for people who are sensitive to dairy, whether they are lactose-intolerant or allergic to milk. All of the milk proteins (like casein) which cause allergies, and the milk sugars (lactose) that many people do not produce the enzyme to digest, are cooked off and skimmed or strained away, leaving the pure nutritious butterfat behind.
Unlike liquid vegetables oils, which go rancid very quickly and are very sensitive to heat, light, and oxygen, you can make a large quantity of ghee at once. Ghee can last for a long time without spoiling (about 3-4 months if kept at room temperature and up to 1 year if refrigerated). It is a very stable fat with a high smoke point, so it can withstand high heat cooking and frying without being damaged. When you heat vegetable oils, or oils that are high in omega-3 fatty acids (ex. flax oil, chia oil, hemp oil, walnut oil) it damages the molecules of the oil and turns them into free radicals, which cause inflammation in the body. Oils that are high in saturated and monounsaturated fats (ex. ghee, coconut oil, and avocado oil) are best used for medium to high heat cooking as they are more stable in their chemical structure and their beneficial properties will not be destroyed when heated.
Unfortunately, we have been surrounded by a fat-phobic food culture that has manufactured the idea that the way to be healthy and lose weight is to avoid fats in the diet. This is simply false information (fat in food does not equal fat in the body) and there is actually no valid current research to support low-fat diets. Consuming any type of food in excess can lead to extra energy being stored in the body’s fat cells. Butter and other types of saturated fats have been given a bad reputation that was not built using credible research studies and made using broad generalizations from very narrow research studies. There is no link between natural (not man-made) saturated fat and heart disease or strokes. Furthermore, current studies have also dispelled the myth about foods high in cholesterol raising cholesterol levels in the body. Cholesterol from food sources has been shown to cause little to no impact on blood cholesterol levels, which alludes to the fact that we cannot oversimplify what happens during the digestive process and that we need to understand what we read on the nutrition label does not translate into what shows up in or on our bodies. Fats in the diet do not turn into fat on our bodies, in fact fats boost metabolism and the body’s ability to digest and eliminate stored fats.
In terms of cholesterol, most of the cholesterol in our bodies is actually produced by the body itself, and only a small percentage comes from our diet. The body is a highly intelligent system that regulates cholesterol levels according to how much is needed at any given time, and the body will either produce less or more cholesterol depending on how much cholesterol we are taking in from dietary sources. Cholesterol is an essential part of every cell membrane in our body to provide structure, protection, and regulate what comes in and out of the cell. The human brain and our nervous system requires cholesterol to build the fatty myelin coating around every nerve fiber and nerve cell. This is critical for the health of the nervous system and its ability to send messages to the rest of the body, as well as for memory and cognitive function. Cholesterol is also incredibly important for hormonal and reproductive health, as every single one of our hormones starts with cholesterol. If you’d like to read more about the significance of cholesterol to our health then I’d recommend reading this very thorough article on the Weston A. Price Foundation website: https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/know-your-fats/cholesterol-friend-or-foe/
Healthy, natural sources of fat (such as ghee, coconut oil, avocados, olive oil, flax seed oil, sesame oil, nuts and seeds, egg yolks, fatty fish) are essential to our health, especially the health of our nervous system, hormones, hair, skin, nails, and digestive system. They contribute to feelings of satiety, can help to stabilize blood sugar levels with a slower release of energy, and ensure that fat soluble vitamins are able to be absorbed by the body. Also important to note is that fat is responsible for carrying flavours and contributing to the mouthfeel (texture) of food, so that we are able to enjoy them to the fullest! I don’t know about you, but to me fat-free products just always feel like they are “missing” something – and they are. It’s time we embrace healthy fats for the nutritious, essential foods they are. It’s not about quantity it’s about quality, and high-quality natural fat sources from food sources (such as avocado, nuts or coconuts) and oils (see the list at the beginning of the paragraph for a list of healing sources of oil) are something we definitely do not need to fear!
Some of the specific health highlights of ghee include:
- Rich in butyric acid, a short chain fatty acid linked to an immune response that can decrease inflammation. Butyric acid is used as energy by the beneficial bacteria in the gut and helps to improve the health of the digestive system. It can be very helpful for individuals suffering from IBS, Crohn’s disease, and Ulcerative Colitis because it can build up the damaged lining of the intestine and colon.
- Rich in fat soluble vitamins (meaning they need fat in order to be absorbed and utilized by the body) A, D, E, and K. Cooking spices and herbs in ghee also releases their beneficial fat-soluble compounds and ensures they are able to be transported into the body.
- If made using butter from grass-fed cows, ghee contains a very high concentration of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which is an antioxidant that has been shown to improve insulin resistance and potentially fight cancer (currently in animal studies).
- Ghee made from grass-fed butter is rich in fat-soluble vitamin K2. K2 is the active form of vitamin K (meaning it is already in a form our body can readily use) and is very beneficial for dental and bone health as it is a calcium-regulator in the body. It ensure that calcium is absorbed and deposited where is needs to be (teeth and bones) and doesn’t wind up in areas where is may cause health issues (arteries, kidneys, tissue, etc.)
- Rich in medium chain fatty acids, which are a type of fat that are very easily digested by the body to be used as a source of quick and consistent energy. Medium chain fatty acids can be used to help the body metabolize stored fat.
- Supports hormonal health and fertility. Cholesterol is created by fat, and is the starting point to create all other sex hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, etc.
- Stimulates the appetite and digestive system.
- Moisturizes dry skin and hair, and reduces inflammation of the skin
I’m going to give you the step-by-step directions for how to make it at home because it is so easy and way cheaper than buying premade ghee from the health food store. Ghee can be used anywhere you would use butter or oil in cooking and in baking, and it imparts a delicious nutty and rich flavour to the food. It is similar to clarified butter, except that ghee is cooked for longer, giving it a distinct flavour. I use it liberally in my own cooking and consider it to be one of the most healing fats to incorporate into the diet!
My wonderful friend Tanishka recently gave me a delicious sounding tip for enhancing the flavour of your homemade ghee. She recommends adding a pinch of cinnamon to the ghee as you are making it. I absolutely love cinnamon and can imagine how amazing cinnamon-infused ghee tastes. I can’t wait to make my next batch using her tip! This also reminds me of a type of spiced clarified butter used in Ethiopian cuisine called Niter Kibbeh, where the butter is simmered with onion, garlic, ginger, black pepper, turmeric, cardamom, and fenugreek and then strained to leave a deliciously infused clarified cooking fat. Every cook will have their own version of homemade Niter Kibbeh and some recipes also include cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg as well. Do you know of any other variations of ghee/clarified butter or have you tried making your own? Let me know if you try experimenting with different flavour infusions in the comments below!
- 1 pound unsalted grass-fed and/or organic butter*
- large stainless steel skillet or saucepan
- large spoon for stirring and skimming
- large liquid measuring up or glass bowl
- fine mesh strainer
- cheesecloth or coffee filter
- 1 pint (2 cup) glass jar for storing the ghee in
Cut the butter into cubes (sometimes I'm lazy and don't cut them into cubes) and place them into the skillet or saucepan on medium heat. Stir until all the butter has melted and begins to form a white foam on the surface.
Lower the heat to medium-low and allow the butter to continue simmering for 5 minutes. Once a layer of white foam forms on top, you can start to use a large spoon to skim it off and discard it. Milk solids will begin to curdle around the edge of the skillet or saucepan, so just continue to skim them off, taking care not to spoon out too much of the liquid ghee.
After about 10 minutes of simmering, the butter should be turning golden in colour and becoming clear. You should be able to see to the bottom of the pan where the milk solids will have settled and begin turning brown. When the butter is clear, golden in colour, and has stopped sputtering (noisy bubbling is the best way I can describe this) it is ready to take off of the heat.
Remove the skillet from the heat and then set up your strainer. Line a mesh strainer with a double layer of cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Set the lined strainer over top of a liquid measuring cup or glass bowl. Carefully pour the melted butter through the strainer. You should be left with browned milk solids in the cheesecloth and a translucent golden liquid in the measuring cup beneath.
Pour the ghee into your storage jar and cover with a lid. Allow the ghee to cool at room temperature until solidified. Store at room temperature for up to 3 months and in the fridge for up to one year.
*Get the best quality of butter you have available to you. Organic and grass-fed is ideal because it ensures you are buying a high quality product from cows that were fed a natural and nutritious diet, raised in humane conditions, and allowed to spend time outdoors - meaning the cream they produced that was then turned into butter is going to be a food with an excellent nutritional profile that contributes to your health! It is not always possible to find grass-fed butter due to strict dairy industry regulations in Canada, and the fact that Canadian dairy cannot be labelled as grass-fed as even the organic cows are not able to graze on grass during the winter. I have had luck sourcing some grass-fed butter imported from New Zealand at a few local stores (Independent, Save On Foods, Sangster's Organic Market) but it is quite expensive. If you can't find grass-fed butter or it is out of your budget, then use organic butter at the very least. Make sure whatever kind you use is unsalted, otherwise the finished ghee will be way too salty!