Often Indian recipes will call for clarified butter when ghee is required. This is misleading – let me explain why.
Although technically Ghee is a type of clarified butter, much confusion arises from equating ghee with clarified butter. This is because the term clarified butter is broadly associated with the French version of the same which is clarified for seconds (whereas ghee is clarified for 10 – 20 minutes). If we read the need for clarified butter in a recipe, we assume the French version, beurre clarifié, which is utterly tasteless compared with ghee, and is different in colour and in medicinal properties. Ghee is cooked longer until the milk solids to brown and all moisture has evaporated. The resulting flavour is more nutty and toasty compared to that of clarified butter. It also means ghee contains no water, so it’s almost spoil-proof – it will last about a year.
Beurre Noisette or brown butter is closer to ghee than clarified butter. Brown butter is heated until the milk solids separate and toast. If the butter is not mixed during and after cooking it will separate into 2 layers, the top layer is close to ghee, the bottom the toasted brown milk solids. But ghee takes this clarification process much much further driving off all water and cooking the solids until very dark. Only the oil is left.
Note that the three butters mentioned here – ghee, beurre noisette and beurre clarifié – are not interchangeable. Tastes vary considerably.
The Purpose of Clarification
The object of clarifying butter is to remove all water, buttermilk, sediment, salt and other impurities which cause butter to blacken and burn and render it susceptible to becoming rancid. It also expels air.
French-Style Clarified butter
Clarified butter is a term used particularly in French cooking. It is a product where butter is melted to drive off a little of the moisture and alter the flavour slightly. Elizabeth David’s recipe for clarified butter, in Omelettes and a Glass of Wine, goes thus:
In a large frying pan put a slab of butter … Let the butter melt over very gentle heat. It must not brown, but should be left to bubble for a few seconds before being removed from the heat and left to settle.
Have ready a piece of butter muslin wrung out in warm water, doubled and laid in a sieve standing over a bowl or deep wide jar in which the butter is to be stored. Filter the butter while it is still warm. For storage, keep the jar, covered, in the refrigerator.
The key point to notice is that the butter is left to bubble for a few seconds only.
Ghee is a product where all moisture and all impure products such as salt, are eliminated from the butter and a pure oil remains. This is done by gently heating butter until almost caramelisation point. It can take from 10 minutes for quite pure butter, to 20 minutes for regular off-the-shelf butter. The process is described in detail here.
The key point to notice is that ghee is left on low heat until the bubbles subside and the butter is on the point of caramelisation. This makes the best ghee. The clarification process is extensive.
This oil has great cooking properties, superb taste and many health giving properties.
Can Ghee be Substituted for Clarified Butter, or Clarified Butter for Ghee?
Ghee has quite a unique taste, whereas the taste of French clarified butter is close to that of butter. While you can substitute one for the other, the flavours of the dishes would be compromised. Ghee is particularly suited to Indian dishes, where the taste of the ghee is strong enough to compliment the spices. French clarified butter has a gentler flavour and compliments the elegance of French dishes very well.
Technically, ghee is a type of clarified butter. But the process of making ghee and French clarified butter differ, leading to products with different colour and different taste.
My recommendation to recipe authors is to specify Ghee and not clarified butter, when ghee is called for. For cooks and chefs, use French clarified butter for French food and seek out ghee for Indian dishes. Or make your own, it is even better.
How to Make Ghee