Thursday, 13 September 2012

Hermitcraft: How to Make Ghee

I had never made ghee before I went to the mountain. In the planning stages of that project, having been raised on tales of people who starved eating rabbit, I believed I needed a source of dietary fat. (Wild rabbits have no fat, according to backwoods lore, hence you can die on a full stomach if you eat only that.) I'd heard about ghee for years, how versatile it was, how good it tasted, and how it kept for months without refrigeration. So that spring I put up four pints of the stuff, for use during my ango.

I found instructions on various Internet sites, but most or all of them were more complicated than necessary. Therefore, because ghee really is useful, especially for people who don't have refrigeration, I submit my recipe.


First, copy the following list of ingredients exactly and procure them from a licensed full-service grocer.

1. Butter.

Next, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. When liquefied, turn the temperature up to a good roiling simmer. You're cooking off the water, which is in all butter, and so it will spit and carry on like any hot fat with water in it. DO NOT STIR. (Reason follows.)

You're also allowing the milk solids in the butter to congeal and sink to the bottom. This is the difference between ghee and drawn or clarified butter; many websites mistakenly equate the two. Ghee is cooked beyond simple separation, until all the water has steamed away and -- very important -- the milk solids have browned. This is what gives ghee its rich flavour, sometimes described as nutty, sweet, or lemony.

The only delicate part is telling when to take the pan off the heat, and that's only delicate because you have to do it by smell. First the ghee will go still; water gone, the bubbling stops. Not long after that, the kitchen will suddenly fill with a buttery scent some associate with baking croissants; to me, it's the smell of shortbread. It's a rich, sumptuous fragrance that takes no prisoners; you'll know it when it happens.

Tilt the pan gently at this point and note that the even layer of gunk on the bottom has a pastry-like, toast-brown aspect. That's your cue to take it off the heat.

Filter the ghee immediately, while still hot and thin. I use a paper coffee filter for this, for its fine mesh and ease of clean-up. (Woodstove Dharma strikes again.) You can also use muslin, cheesecloth, or a steel-screen coffee filter.

Pour the filtered ghee into a lidded jar or tub, and you're done.

Fact is, there are only two ways you can screw this up:

1. By becoming distracted (for example by drying paint, which is more exciting than watching butter melt) and allowing the milk solids on the bottom to burn rather than brown, giving the ghee an off flavour.

2. By boiling the ghee so vigorously that some slops on the stove and sets your house on fire, rendering the flavour relatively moot by comparison.

The fix for both is the same: never leave the kitchen until the ghee is off the stove. I wipe down the counter, wash a few dishes, start another recipe, whatever I can do without stepping more than a metre away from the simmering pot. Adventure averted.

So, what kind of butter is best? Again, details are important: you must only use butter made from the milk of some animal. Do not attempt to make ghee from roofing tar, modelling clay, margarine, or old tires; the flavour will be disappointing.

Aside from that, any butter will do. Many websites insist the butter be unsalted; some insist it be expensive; some say it must be organic. The fact is, all butter works. On the Indian subcontinent, ghee is commonly made of yak butter, but the stores where I live tend to sell out of that before I get there, so I use cow butter. The sole difference between the salted and unsalted is purity: marginally-refined butter must be salted to stop all the solids that have been left in it going rancid. Unsalted butter must be more refined, to remove the spoil-prone proteins that would otherwise require salt, and this extra processing raises the price.

Because it has fewer foreign substances to precipitate out, unsalted butter renders the most ghee per pound of butter. (Typically just a shade less than the original amount.) Good-quality salted butter renders slightly less ghee than that, but the ghee is not salty; the salt drops out with the rest of the solids. Even the cheapest, crappiest, scariest butter you can buy (that infamous single paper-wrapped rough-hewn slab that smells like cheese and tastes like salt paste) makes excellent ghee. There's just less of it. (Much less; you'll get about two thirds the original amount. In other words, a third of that machete butter, isn't butter.)

Ghee has less cholesterol than butter and keeps well without refrigeration if stored in a cool dark place. Since the crust left on the bottom of your pan is also what makes butter burn at high temperature, you can fry in ghee. And it can be used at the table like whole butter. The flavour is pleasant but subtle, and is compatible with most dishes.

Now that I'm initiated, I gotta have ghee. I fry potatoes in it, pop popcorn, and of course, sauté my masala. A pound or two put up, and I'm fixed for the year.

What was it they used to say on TV? "Try it, you'll like it."
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