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Ghee is an intriguing food with a delicious buttery flavour. That's not surprising since ghee is either made from butter or made to taste like it. This is a common food in India, the Middle East and Africa. These are places where milk products soon go bad without refrigeration.

However butter will keep for a long time; months in fact, if it is clarified. This is unsalted butter that has been cooked slowly so that the water evaporates and milk solids precipitate. The milk solids turn brown in the cooking and give the oil a tasty nutty flavour. When the solids are strained out, the oil that remains is clear and golden. It solidifies as it cools but quickly becomes clear again when it is heated.

Clarified butter used to be common in kitchens. Western cooking has largely discarded it. We have easy access to refrigerators and also use more non-dairy cooking oils such as corn and canola. But clarified butter still exists in much of the world's cooking. It is particularly popular in India where it is known as ghee.

Ghee made from butter has a sweet, nutty taste. In India, ghee was once made only from the milk of the water buffalo but today any milk can be used. Ghee made from butter is often called usli ghee. Madhur Jaffrey, in her book An Invitation to Indian Cooking, writes that in many Indian households children get a daily spoonful of usli ghee in the same way that English parents pop vitamin pills into their children's mouths.

But usli ghee is rich food. More common, and less expensive, is a ghee which is made from soy bean, palm and other vegetable oils. Vegetable ghee has artificial colour and flavour added to it to make it look and taste like butter. As well, vegetable ghee has no cholesterol, unlike butter-based ghee.

Ghee gives food a wonderful buttery taste and, better than butter, it doesn't burn as easily. The smoking point of both vegetable and butter based ghee tends to be higher than most vegetable oils. A little ghee can often take the place of a larger amount of oil for frying food and it works well in wok cooking where a high heat is necessary for stir-frying. A teaspoon of ghee in a small pan easily cooks a couple of cloves of minced garlic without turning acrid. I plan to use a little when I make popcorn.

While recipes may state that vegetable oil can be used as a substitute, ghee has a much stronger flavour and should be used when a dish calls for it.

Ghee is a fat and can be used the same way other cooking oils are used. A bottle or can will keep for weeks on the counter and several months in the refrigerator.

Authentic ghee recipe (from the Balti Curry cookbook):

2lbs. (900 g.) any kind of butter

1. Place the butter blocks whole into a medium non-stick pan. Melt at a very low heat.

2. When completely melted, raise heat very slightly. Ensure it does noit smoke or burn, but don't stir. Leave to cook about one hour. (When I try this on my stove I need to turn it to the absolute minimum setting, or it will turn brown. Watch it carefully.) The impurities will sink to the bottom and float on the top. Carefully skim any off the top with a slotted spoon, but don't touch the bottom.

3. Turn off the heat and allow the ghee to cool a little. Then strain it through paper towels or muslin into an airtight jar. When it cools, it solidifies, although it is quite soft. It should be a bright pale lemon color and smell a bit like toffee. If it has burned, it will be darker and smell different—if it isn't too burned, it can still be used, but the key is: don't let it burn!

Ayako Kiyokawa's quick-ghee recipe: A quick, if inauthentic way to make a passable ghee is to take an amount of butter according to your needs (I use one stick—you can easily refrigerate the remainder) and put it into a microwaveable cup. Microwave on high until liquified and a white foamy froth has formed on top. Microwaves vary greatly in strength—this could take two to five minutes, but check frequently. Then, as carefully as possible, skim the white froth (milk solids) off the top with a spoon. The resulting hopefully clear yellow liquid is ghee. I've been known to strain this through a paper towel and coffee filter, but that can get messy.

© Barry Lazar 2000 Email Flavourguy

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