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Ghee: The Golden Essence of Milk

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The Golden Essence of Milk

Ghee (purified butter) is the ideal cooking medium.
You can easily make it at home and cook vegetarian
dishes to please Lord Krsna.

by Visakha-devi dasi

1982-02-14

Milk, the miracle food, yields cheese, cream, yogurt, butter, and ghee. The essence of milk and the consummate cooking medium, ghee imparts such a refined, irresistible flavor that it’s earned the label “liquid gold” from those experienced in preparing Krsna’s cuisine.

“If you have no money, then beg, borrow, or steal, but somehow get ghee.” So advised the great atheist Carvaka Muni, who lived thousands of years ago in India.

Ghee is purified butter. It’s made by first skimming the cream from milk, then churning the cream into butter, and finally heating the butter very slowly until all of its moisture is driven off and its protein solids have separated. The result is ghee, the essence of milk, and of all cooking mediums it is by far the best. Carvaka must have enjoyed the distinctive, faintly sweet, delicately nutty flavor of ghee, which lends an irresistible quality to even ordinary foods. For him, without ghee there was no question of good food, and without good food to enjoy, what was the use of living?

Yet although Carvaka was a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, he would never have considered eating meat. Even for Carvaka, the very idea of meat-eating was barbaric. Why cut a cow’s throat when you can simply feed her grass and fodder and drink her blood, transformed into the much more agreeable form of milk? From milk you can produce cream, yogurt, cheese, buttermilk, butter, and ghee. And with ghee you can make many hundreds of thousands of dishes (we’ll share some of the recipes with you in the coming months). As Carvaka found, all our needs in eating—nutrition, digestibility, variety, and taste—can be fully satisfied if we have ample ghee.

Ghee is more than the finest of all cooking mediums. In Vedic ceremonies like those for marriage and spiritual initiation, ghee is generously ladled into the sacrificial fire. Intact, in a former age, called the Treta-yuga, performers of sacrifice literally poured this purified butter—by the ton—into sacrificial fires while learned saints precisely and melodiously chanted timeless Sanskrit mantras. Carvaka might have considered this a waste of the “liquid gold.” But the elaborate ceremony was a way to please the Supreme Lord, and when the Lord is pleased all a devotee’s aspirations are fulfilled. When Krsna sees that a devotee is sincerely trying to please Him, He reciprocates and showers all benedictions upon the devotee.

But the Treta-yuga is long gone. Now just purchasing a little butter pinches the purse, and even if one has ample ghee, most probably one has no interest in Vedic sacrifices. Besides, one would be hard put to find saints qualified to pronounce the mantras the way they should be. But in this age of quarrel and hypocrisy, the same benefits one could formerly derive by offering tons of ghee into the sacrificial fire one can now derive by chanting the holy names of God, especially the maha-mantra (the great chant for deliverance): Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. And in whatever ghee is available, one can cook dishes to offer to Krsna. (“All that you eat,” Krsna says, “should be offered to Me.”)

The ghee Krsna enjoys has many attributes besides its fine taste. You can heat ghee to high temperatures and it won’ bubble or smoke, because the water (which bubbles at 212° F) and the protein solids (which burn at 250) have been removed. So besides being excellent for mixing into simple cooked food to bring out great flavor, ghee is ideal for sauteing, braising, and both shallow frying and deep frying. Ghee also keeps well: sealed and stored in a cool, dry cupboard, it will last two or three months; frozen, it will last up to six.

Ghee is also high in vitamin A. So it’s desirable both for cooking and as a dietary component. (That’s the word from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Their small book Milk and Milk Products in Human Nutrition gives evidence that the nutritive properties of ghee place it above other animal and vegetable fats.) If you’re concerned with your cholesterol intake, don’t worry about cooking with ghee. Researchers have shown that eating ghee won’t raise the cholesterol in your blood.

When you’re making your first batch of ghee—the butter is ever so gently simmering and the protein solids are silently settling—you might meditate on an analogy Srila Prabhupada once gave: “Ghee is present in butter, but to get ghee from butter you must follow the procedure that’s given by an experienced cook. Similarly, Krsna is in everything by His various energies, but to realize His presence and to develop our love for Him, we have to follow the procedure given by the bona fide spiritual master.”

Try cooking with ghee. You’ll quickly find out why Carvaka wanted it at any cost.

(Ghee Recipes by Yamuna-devi dasi)

Making ghee is neither difficult nor complicated, but it does take time. There are no shortcuts in preparing pure ghee. A quick method may yield a product resembling that of the long method, but only long, slow cooking fully evaporates all the liquid from the pure butterfat, bringing out the distinctively sweet, nutty flavor in the pale gold oil. Only by long, slow cooking at a very low heat is the faintly caramel, sweet aroma and flavor developed and the moisture driven off.

Any ordinary unsalted butter from the local supermarket will produce superb ghee that will add a completely new dimension to your cooking. (Although it’s feasible to make ghee from salted butter, the salt masks the flavor and makes the protein solids separated from the ghee generally unusable as a special seasoning.)

You can make ghee either in the oven or on the stove. For quantities over 5 pounds, using the oven makes the project a joy, because you don’t have to tend the ghee at all. Smaller amounts, which take less time, can be more easily watched on the stove, especially if you’re in the kitchen anyway and have a free burner. The chart below gives you an approximate idea of how long it takes to make various amounts of ghee by both methods.

Unsalted Grade AA Butter Oven Method Time Stove Method Time Yield
1 pound 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hours 1 hour 1 2/3 ups (¾ lb.)
2 pounds 1 ¾ to 2 ¼ hours 1 ½ hours 3c. (1 ½ lbs.)
3 pounds 2 ¾ to 3 ¼ hours 2 hours 5c. (2 ¼ lbs.)
5 pounds 3 ½ to 4 hours 3 hours 9c. (4 1bs.)
10 pounds 6 ½ to 7 hours 5 to 5 ½ hours 17c. (7 ¾ lbs.)

Ghee (Oven Method)

Equipment:

4- to 5-quart heavy saucepan or pressure cooker

Fine-mesh wire skimmer or large metal spoon (not slotted)

Ladle

Large sieve or strainer, lined with 3 thicknesses of cheesecloth or 1 thickness of good quality paper towel (Don’t use the kind with plastic reinforcing threads.)

Clean metal can, glass jar, or earthenware crock with a tight-fitting lid

Small container for storing protein solids

1. Preheat the oven to 300° F. Fill a heavy, thick-walled saucepan or pressure cooker with unsalted butter and place it, uncovered, in the oven. Make sure to leave at least an inch or two above the butter when filling the pan. Allow the butter to melt and clarify, undisturbed, for the necessary amount of time (see chart). Check smaller amounts periodically, but you can leave large amounts overnight with the oven at 275″ to 300″ F. (If your heat’s too high the butter can catch fire. Careful!) When there’s a layer of solid foam on the surface, clear amber-gold ghee in the middle, and lumps of golden-brown solids on the bottom, gently remove the pan from the oven.

2. Skim the crusty foam from the surface with a fine-mesh wire skimmer. If you don’t have one, you can use a large metal spoon, which is much less efficient and a little wasteful but adequate if used carefully. Place the foam in a small container and save (see step 6).

3. Ladle the clear ghee into your can, jar, or crock through a large sieve or strainer lined with 3 thicknesses of cheesecloth or 1 thickness of good quality paper towel. (Don’t use a paper towel with plastic reinforcing threads: the plastic will melt.) When you come near the solids on the bottom of the pan, stop before you disturb them.

4. Pour one or two cups of cold water into the pan and refrigerate for a few hours, until the ghee floats to the top and forms a solid layer. You can lift it off in a single piece and wash it under cold running water. Pat the ghee dry with a paper towel and add it to the ghee that has already been strained.

5. Cool the ghee to room temperature, uncovered. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry place, or in a refrigerator. Ghee that has been properly purified, filtered, and stored will last for months.

6. Discard the remaining water in the pan and combine the remaining solids at the bottom with the foam skimmed off from the surface of the ghee. You can use the solids as a sandwich spread or mix them into cooked vegetables, soups, and other dishes. Refrigerated, the solids will keep for only 4 or 5 days, so use them quickly.

Ghee (Stove Method)

Equipment: (same as oven method)

1. Place 1 to 5 pounds of butter into a large, heavy saucepan. Heat over medium-high flame, stirring occasionally, until the butter melts and comes to a boil. When the surface of the butter is covered with a frothy white foam, reduce the heat to a very low temperature. Simmer the butter, uncovered and undisturbed, until the gelatinous protein solids have collected on the bottom of the pan and a thin layer of pale golden, crusty solids has formed on the surface.

2. With the wire-mesh skimmer, skim off the thin crust on the surface. How long you need to cook the ghee depends on how much you make, but the ideal finished ghee is crystal-clear and pale in color. Ghee becomes dark when cooked over too high a flame or cooked too long. You may skim off the foam as it forms and hardens and save it in a small container.

3-6. (Follow steps 3-6 in the oven method.)

Seasoned Ghee (Masala ghee)

The use of seasoned ghee is perhaps the subtlest way to introduce seasonings into simple cooked or raw foods. Ideally, vegetables eaten by children, the elderly, or invalids should be garnished with seasoned ghee to impart a lively but mild flavor to otherwise bland dishes. Just as you might steep a fresh vanilla pod in simmering cremes or custards to release its bouquet, you may add a ginger root or turmeric root or selected aromatic spice seeds to slowly simmering ghee to release hinted flavors. When you strain the spices off, you’ll have a clear, aromatic oil filled with subtle nuances of flavor.

Masala ghee is made just like regular ghee, so simply follow either recipe for ghee given above, adding the spices as soon as the butter melts. For example, to make 1 2/3 cups of seasoned ghee, simply add one of the following to 1 pound of melted butter and proceed as outlined above: a 1-inch-square piece of peeled, sliced, fresh ginger root: 2 tablespoons of cumin seeds; a 1-inch-square piece of whole turmeric root; 1 to 1 ½ tablespoons of whole black peppercorns; or 2 tablespoons of whole cloves. Be sure to label and date your masala ghee, or you won’t be able to distinguish it from your plain ghee.

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