Why Chefs Are Cooking With Ghee
Ghee rendered from cultured butter is Chef Tory Miller’s frying medium of choice for the fingerling potato chips that go with his beef tartare: “The chips get super crispy, with that buttery funkiness,” says Miller, the chef at Graze, an eclectic gastropub in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s so into ghee that nearly everything he sears on his plancha is cooked in it: “from vegetables to burgers to burger buns to fish fillets.”
At Horse’s Mouth, an Asian-inspired restaurant previously in Los Angeles’s Koreatown with a new location opening soon, ghee was melted and drizzled over Maine lobster rolls; it’s also the base of coconut curry mussels. Chef Charlie Yusta prizes ghee for its high smoke point and its complexity.
“Olive oil will get bitter. If you take a canola oil, the flavor’s not gonna change,” Yusta says, “but when you take ghee and you cook it a bit in the pan before you throw your onions or garlic or seafood in, it’s gonna give a bit more nuttiness and richness, it’s gonna give a bit more depth to the dish. It’s gonna bring another layer. It’s gonna bring more of a storyline.”
That story goes something like this: ghee originated a millennium ago in India, where a warm climate necessitated something more shelf-stable than butter. Ghee is essentially butter that’s clarified, then cooked longer than the clarified butter you’d find in French kitchens. As a result, it’s nuttier and more intense in flavor. In the process, milk solids get strained out, making ghee lactose- and casein-free. Without those perishable milk solids, ghee keeps well even in sweltering weather. It plays an outsized role in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian medical practice, and even has a place in the Hindu creation story: when Purusha, the first man, rubbed his hands together, he made ghee; then he poured it onto a fire to make other creatures. As a product of the sacred cow, ghee’s also a crucial component in sacrifice. In Hindu temples, lamps are sometimes lit by ghee.
Newer brands are focusing less on ghee’s health benefits and more on its culinary versatility.
The newest chapter in ghee’s story is its rising popularity in North America, where it’s a star among paleo and Whole 30 Dieters and Cross-Fit enthusiasts who blend ghee into their bulletproof coffees or stir it into their bone broths. At Broth Bar in Portland, Oregon, for example, you can order a cup of bone broth with a “ghee and cocoa butter bomb.”
Broth Bar Chef Tressa Yellig says the fat in ghee helps the body digest protein more easily. “And it adds a creaminess without adding dairy, which is important for a lot of our customers who are sensitive to dairy.”
Ghee’s purported benefits are myriad: it contains butyric acid, a short-chain fatty acid found in dairy products, and acts as food for colonocytes, the cells of your colon (meaning it’s good for the digestive tract); it doesn’t seem to raise cholesterol in the same way butter does. “Really good ghee made from high-quality, grass-fed butter has quite a bit of vitamins A, E, and K2 and twice the short- and medium-chain fatty acids that butter has,” Dave Asprey, the founder and CEO of Bulletproof Coffee, tells me over email.
These days, you can find more small-batch, grass-fed ghee makers in the U.S. than ever before—many of whom got started in ghee via Ayurveda, “the sister science to yoga,” as Lee Dares calls it. Dares owns Lee’s Provisions, a two-year-old Toronto-based ghee company. “It’s so easily digestible and assimilated,” says Lynn Goodwin of Farm to Gold, based in the Northeast. Goodwin met her business partner Kim Welsh while studying Ayurvedic medicine. “Ghee carries that medicinal action directly into the tissues of the body,” she says.
An Ayurvedic doctor prescribing herbs might infuse them in ghee. And ghee’s a good moisturizer à la coconut oil: “You can rub it in your scalp or your feet, like a mini-massage. You can do it before bed. It’s super, super relaxing. If you have more time you can rub it into your whole body from head to toe,” says Dares. “You can also put it in your nostrils if you get dry in the wintertime, and even your ears.”
But these newer brands are focusing less on ghee’s health benefits and more on its culinary versatility. Its high smoke point—485 degrees to be exact—means it works in countless cooking applications. (“Maybe not on a salad,” Broth Bar’s Yellig says, laughing.) Galen Zamarra, chef of Mas in Manhattan, likes to use ghee especially for grilling. “I think it absorbs the smoke a little bit better than oil might,” he explains. Zamarra’s father, an Ayurvedic doctor and cardiologist, first introduced Zamarra to ghee. It was while cooking in France, using clarified butter liberally, that he learned that ghee was good for more than medicine.
“It doesn’t burn like butter,” says Raquel Tavares Gunsagar, the founder and CEO of Fourth and Heart, named after the fourth chakra and based in Los Angeles. The company offers infused ghee in flavors like garlic, white truffle, and vanilla bean. Gunsagar sears steak in the white truffle ghee and makes vanilla-bean-ghee pancakes for her kids. Lee’s Ghee also offers flavors like za’atar and turmeric.
“The more popular ghee becomes, the more supermarkets are moving it from the ‘ethnic’ aisle to the oil aisle,” says Debbie Shandel, the Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at Carrington Farms, which sells ghee and a ghee-coconut blend.
Last December, I fried latkes in ghee, and they were incredible. So I asked the Bon Appétit test kitchen how else to get ghee in my life.