Let’s face it—everyone loves butter. Melted on top of crusty toast, drizzled over hot popcorn, folded into pasta with bright pepper flakes and delicate sea salt … it’s just so good.
We go all googly-eyed for butter, but does it feel the same way about us? Our obsession goes way back (we’ve been making it from cow’s milk for as long as we’ve kept domesticated animals), but our love story hit a bump in the road in the early 1980s when doctors blamed its saturated fat content for causing heart disease and increasing our cholesterol levels. Thankfully, those claims have been repudiated by today’s researchers, who’ve since determined that saturated fats actually help us maintain a healthy weight and that there’s no link between butter and heart disease.
As wonderful as it is, butter does have some pitfalls. It burns easily and has a low-smoke point, which means that cooking with it at a too-high heat can produce carcinogens, compounds proven to cause cancer. And for anyone sensitive to lactose—nearly 65 percent of the world’s population, according to the U.S. Library of Medicine—butter is strictly off-limits. That’s where ghee—the clarified version of butter (no milk proteins, sugars, or waters here)—comes in. Making ghee involves removing milk solids like lactose and casein, which means it’s safe for those who normally have to shy away from butter. With a bright yellow color and super-intense flavor, ghee is a staple in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking.
So which is better—ghee or butter? Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of both.
What is butter?
Traditionally, butter is made by churning fresh cream or milk until the fat solids condense and thicken and separate from the liquid. The remaining buttermilk is removed, and what’s left is butter. These days it’s made through a more technical process, in which factories use centrifugal force to separate solids from the milk en mass. The final product, like most butter you’d find at the grocery store, is typically at least 80 percent fat, and about 16 percent water and 3 percent milk solids.
What is ghee?
Ghee is clarified butter, a process that involves simmering butter down to essentially get a concentrated version that’s free from excess water and milk solids, basically leaving only fat behind. This cooking fat is known as ghee, and it’s similar to coconut oil in both consistency and nutritional value. It tastes kind of like browned butter—slightly nutty and a little toasted—and works as a 1:1 swap for butter in most recipes. (For more ideas on how to use ghee in your recipes, read on!)
So what’s so special about ghee? The thing that makes it stand out when compared to butter is that it’s free from lactose and casein, two milk proteins that are responsible for most dairy intolerances and allergies—meaning that someone who usually has to avoid dairy because of digestive issues can typically eat ghee without any problems. And because most of the water is evaporates out during the clarifying process, ghee is shelf-stable meaning it can hang out in your pantry for months without spoiling. Always a bonus in our eyes!
Ghee also has an impressive nutrient profile even though it’s primarily composed of fats. Usually derived from grass-fed butter, it has high levels of vitamins A, E, and D. Even varieties not made from grass-fed butter retain the butyric acid, a fatty acid necessary for a healthy metabolism, that’s only found in dairy products It’s surprising just how many vitamins and minerals are found in ghee—here’s a rundown of what those nutrients are and what they do in your body.
Those with IBS, gluten intolerance, Crohn’s disease, or pancreatic disorders often struggle to get sufficient amounts of vitamin A because it’s a fat-soluble (i.e. difficult to absorb) compound. But because vitamin A plays an important role in bone growth, reproductive health, and immune function, a deficiency can cause some pretty serious issues. Ghee’s high fat content (versus other plant-based sources) renders its vitamin A more bioavailable and easily absorbed.
One of the most important antioxidants for keeping cells hydrated, vitamin E also balances hormone and cholesterol levels and helps protect cells from free-radical damage.
Most people know that catching a few of the sun’s rays helps the body produce vitamin D, and it turns out this fat-soluble vitamin is actually pretty difficult to get from even a healthy and balanced diet. Small amounts are found in beef liver, egg yolks, cheese—and ghee. Important for bone growth, vitamin D also assists in mineral absorption in the gut.
Butyric acid (or butyrate) is a fatty acid compound that’s been studied for its effects on fat metabolism, gut health, and brain function. Clinical studies indicate that butyric acid acts as a prebiotic to healthy gut bacteria, feeding the strains that contribute to digestion and metabolism. According to a study published in the Polish Gastroenterology Review, butyric acid’s effect on the gut could even help treat the inflammation and discomfort that comes with serious digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome.
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)
The human body is unable to produce CLA, so we have to get our daily dose of this omega-6 fatty acid from animal products—ghee and butter included. Though marketed as a fat-burning supplement, CLA might have an even more important superpower. Studies show that it inhibits the growth of cancer cells, even in relatively small doses.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Essential to our survival, omega-3 fatty acids are another compound that our bodies can’t produce, so we have to get them through food sources. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, omega-3s have an anti-inflammatory effect, and “have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions.”
The World Health Organization recommends that adults eat 250 to 500 milligrams of this monounsaturated fat daily, and just a tablespoon of ghee contains 45 milligrams of omega-3s.
How to make ghee
The process of clarifying butter is commonly traced back to ancient India, where ghee is a staple ingredient. Because of the balmy climate, it was difficult to store butter for long periods of time—and clarifying ghee makes it shelf-stable and safe to store even in warmer temperatures.
Making ghee is time-consuming, but yields a cooking fat that has the creamy, salty taste of butter and the high-smoke point—about 450 degrees—of a cooking oil like vegetable or soybean. Compared to butter, coconut oil, and olive oil, all of which start to smoke at around 350 degrees, ghee is far healthier to use for frying and sautéing. (When exposed to high heat, the chemical structure of these oils actually changes, which can destroy any health benefits and, more importantly, cause carcinogens to develop.)
And to make it all you need is some grass-fed butter and a little bit of time!
1 pound of grass-fed butter
Special tools: heavy-bottomed skillet, cheesecloth, mesh skimmer, strainer, wooden spoon or spatula
- Place butter in a skillet over medium-low heat. Allow butter to melt slowly—be patient! You don’t want it to burn.
- Maintain a simmer, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, for about 20 to 30 minutes.
- When ghee is ready, you’ll see a white foam on the surface with visible bits of milk fats stuck to the bottom of the pan.
- Skim off the foam with a mesh skimmer and discard.
- Continue to skim away foam until there’s none left, or until the milk fat solids on the bottom of the pan turn golden brown.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool to slightly; it should still be in liquid form.
- Place cheesecloth over glass jar, and slowly pour golden liquid in.
Ghee can be stored at room temperature for up to a month, and lasts for up to six months in the refrigerator.
Not a DIY-er? These days, most health food stores carry high-quality ghee. But because producers use only the best butter and oversee the clarification process, it can be really pricey. At Thrive Market you can stock up for 25 to 50 percent less than what you’d normally pay—remember, ghee can can replace nearly every other cooking oil in your kitchen!
Great ghee recipes
It’s true—ghee is one of our food editor Merce Muse’s most-loved ingredients. We’ve got over 70 recipes with ghee on our blog, but here some of are our favorites.
Whip out the crockpot for a twist on store-bought jam that’s actually healthy—and so good spread over crispy toast, slathered on straight-from-the-oven muffins and pastries, or swirled into hot cereal. Bonus: there’s zero added sugar.
Ghee replaces butter to give gluten-free cookies a delightfully crunchy exterior and a soft, gooey center. They’re so healthy you could eat them for breakfast, guilt-free!
Ghee-fried egg, a crispy veggie pancake, and fresh sorrel pesto all come together in this epic breakfast stack.
Sometimes gluten-free baked goods can taste like they’re missing something. Not the case with these fluffy muffins—not even the pickiest eaters will be able to tell that almond flour and buttery ghee are the key ingredients!
Trade in regular oats for our protein-packed quinoa. Cooking it with almond milk and ghee instead of water gives it a thicker consistency for a rich and decadent feel (but they’re super good for you!)
Lunch and Dinner Mains
So tender the meat practically falls off the bone, slow cooker short ribs are cooked at a low heat over eight hours to build incredible flavor. It’s super important to brown the ribs before they go into the pot—the caramelization is what makes the skin perfectly crispy gives the meat its flavor.
Hosting a Paleo dinner party? Wow guests with a veggie-packed “lasagna” that replaces noodles with butternut squash for a super-savory and healthy main course.
Remember: seasoning under the skin is the best way to maintain flavor while cooking poultry. Here that extra salt and spice in our sage-chile rub adds crunch and crackle to chicken thighs for an elevated weeknight dinner.
According to Ayurvedic tradition, curry is the ultimate soul-warming dish—perfect for chilly winter days. Go meatless with sautéed eggplant, which adds extra heartiness.
With just five ingredients, mushroom-and-rosemary pasta tastes gourmet but can be whipped up in less than 20 minutes.
Make this once and you’ll never go back to Chipotle—roasted cauliflower replaces white rice for a low-glycemic base.
There are two surprising secret ingredients in this verdant side—briny anchovies and capers, which add serious punch to tender broccolini.
Craving mashed potatoes but don’t wanna deal with the extra-starchy carbs? Replace spuds with creamy parsnips for a Paleo-friendly twist on the classic dish.
Sure, the veggies are delightful, but the real stunner here is the orange–brown butter sauce. Ghee is far easier to sauté with because it doesn’t burn as easily as other cooking fats.
Yellow and red beets are roasted in ghee to bring out their sweet, earthy flavors.
How do you get creamy, “cheesy” macaroni without the dairy? Ghee, naturally.
Ghee plus buffalo sauce? Yep, that’s the secret to making these vegetarian “wings” crispy, spicy, and totally tasty.
An elegant appetizer for any occasion, shallots and tarragon make eggs far more memorable—and flavorful.
Like rice krispies treats, except so much more fun to make (and eat)!
Allergic to peanuts? Whip up a batch of these pea-NOT butter cookies.
The chocolate crust on this ooey gooey pecan pie is next-level good. Bonus: It’s Paleo.
Pan-roasting bananas in ghee with a little bit of spicy cardamom is what takes this old-fashioned dessert over the top.
Is butter or ghee better?
Grass-fed butter and ghee can be used interchangeably, but is one better than the other? If you’re trying to eliminate allergenic and inflammatory foods from your diet, ghee is probably the better choice because it’s free of lactose and casein proteins. Plus, it has a higher smoke point than most cooking fats, so it’s safer to use for sautéing, baking, and frying.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho