It looks like butter. It smells like butter. It’s even made with butter. So is ghee actually any better than butter?
Well, it might depend on your purpose.
Ghee, or clarified butter, is a fat commonly used in Indian, Moroccan and Arabic cuisines. While you still won’t see it in many grocery stores, ghee has been growing in popularity in recent years despite origins that go back nearly 8,000 years.
According to a recent study, the local ghee market grew about 4% from 2009 to 2016.
“It’s an ancient food,” said Bev Martin, co-owner of Simply Ghee in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “Ghee is literally just butter without the lactose, caseins and moisture.”
To start the process, butter is heated to just over 212ºF. During this melting process, the milk solids separate and fall to the bottom of the pan resulting in a clear, golden liquid — this liquid is cooled to become ghee.
“We melt 410 pounds of butter at a time. It starts as solid, but by the time we’re done with it, the solids sink away and get stuck to the bottom of the pan,” said Martin. “They brown and caramelize. It imparts a nice flavor profile to the ghee.”
Ghee is often described as having a buttered popcorn or buttered croissant flavor.
“It’s great for cooking. It can coat the pan nicely, and it’s very easy to use,” said Martin.
Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and the owner of Active Eating Advice in Pittsburgh, agrees ghee’s properties are appealing for food preparation.
“The smoke point is higher than butter, so it’s easier to cook with,” said Bonci. “It’s a little richer tasting. Part of that is because you’re removing the milk solids so it’s basically 100% fat. It gives this luscious taste that, of course, is attractive.”
But Bonci has concerns about the recent rise in ghee as a go-to superfood of sorts.
“It’s better for cooking and people tend to love the flavor, but we can’t put it on a pedestal — just like coconut oil. Ghee has more calories and more fat in the same portion size than butter, so when you use ghee, use it in place of something else — not with it,” she said.
Consumers should keep in mind, ghee is still very high in saturated fat, even though some studies have linked it to lower cholesterol levels.
While it’s true we need “good fats” in our diets, Bonci worries consumers hear the words “good” or “healthy” in regards to ghee and misinterpret what that actually means for their daily diet.
“Fats are composed of different length chains — some longer, some shorter, and what that really refers to is the rate at which we digest them,” said Bonci. “We digest the shorter chains, like ghee, more quickly, and they may help the body in clearing dietary cholesterol, but the problem is, at the end of the day, it’s still a saturated fat, and people can get carried away.”
People burdened with lactose intolerance have pointed to ghee as an alternative to milk solid-based butter. Because of the way ghee is prepared, lactose and milk proteins are removed almost entirely.
“We’ve had lactose folks stop by our booths at local fairs to try ghee, and by the end of the day they come back and let us know they’ve had no problems,” said Martin. “They usually buy a lot at that point because they found a butter alternative that will work with their dietary needs.”
Bonci points out that the process of creating ghee isn’t perfect and some milk proteins may end up in your ghee, so be careful.
The take-away: It’s always best to arm yourself with information, so you can determine whether butter or ghee is better for you as an individual — but it’s never good to add extra fat to your diet. Use ghee in place of butter, and you should be fine.
“A tablespoon of ghee has about 5 grams of fat. A thumbnail-size has about 3 grams of fat,” said Bonci.
Most Americans should be getting around 16 grams of saturated fat per day, so there is room if you choose to make room. But don’t overdo it.
“Moderation is key. It’s a healthy fat, and we need that for healthy brain function, but you don’t want to eat the whole jar right away,” said Martin. “I might add a tablespoon to salmon or vegetables or coat the pan for cooking. It can add great flavor. Just don’t go overboard.”
Martin also points to the product’s stable shelf life — meaning you don’t have to store it in the refrigerator.
“These health concerns don’t mean people shouldn’t try new things,” said Bonci. “But we have to put it in perspective. It’s a replacement food. Not an add-on. Anything that adds excessive fat to your diet is not good. Most people don’t have unlimited calorie counts.”
“If people were just having a little bit, it would be okay.”
Interested in ghee or already a fan of the flavor? Try this recipe from Simply Ghee for improved taste on an old favorite. As we've learned, just don't overdo it! Ghee has lots of flavor — and there is even flavored ghee if you're up for something new. (The Maple Cinnamon ghee is simply screaming for my morning oatmeal, and Bev Martin suggested the brilliant combo of Sriracha ghee on Salmon.)
Freshly Roasted Tomato Soup
- 2.5 lbs Roma tomatoes cut in half lengthwise
- 4 Tbs of Simply Ghee, melted
- 1 Tbs of maple syrup
- 1 Tbs of BBQ mesquite seasoning, (salt-free)
- Unrefined salt (Celtic) and freshly cracked pepper to taste
- 1 Sweet onion, medium, chopped
- 4 Garlic cloves, minced
- Dash of red pepper flakes or (cayenne) — to taste
- 1 Cup fresh basil, julienned strips
- 1 (15 oz) Can diced tomatoes
- 4 Cups of chicken or vegetable stock
To roast the tomatoes:
Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Spread the tomatoes on a baking sheet. In a bowl, mix 2 tablespoons of melted ghee, maple syrup and BBQ mesquite seasoning and blend together. Pour mixture over the tomatoes — cut sides facing up. Season with salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste and roast in the oven at 400ºF for about 45 minutes.
In a large stock pot, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of ghee over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until tender — about 3 minutes. Stir in the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the canned tomatoes, fresh basil and broth. Stir in the oven roasted tomatoes and simmer over medium-low heat for 30 minutes.
Remove from heat and in the stockpot, puree the mixture with an immersion blender or transfer the soup to a food processor or blender to blend. Be careful because the soup is very hot. Remember to start blending at a slow speed and increase gradually. The soup should be smooth with some tomato chunks. Season with unrefined salt and pepper to taste. You can prepare the soup to this point and refrigerate. When ready to serve, bring to a slow simmer over medium heat. Before serving, stir in 1 tablespoon of ghee. YUM!
Serves 4 generously.
Perfect with a grilled ghee cheese sandwich.
Start with sliced crusty whole grain bread. Slather both sides with a thin coat ghee, grill on both sides till cheese is melted. Use your favorite cheese. Don’t forget to dip it in the soup!
Want croutons? Cube crusty bread or sprouted sliced bread into 1 inch pieces. Melt 1 tablespoon of ghee per slice of bread. Mix into the melted ghee, garlic to your liking, a teaspoon each of dried basil, oregano — whatever your favorites are and toss on a cooking sheet. Bake at 350ºF for about 10 minutes, turning them frequently. Then for just a minute place them under the broiler but watch them very closely so as not to burn. Simple and delish, golden and buttery. Make extras for salads and store in a tightly lidded glass container.