Butter 101: Clarified Butter, Ghee, and Brown Butter

A comprehensive post on how to make clarified butter, ghee, and brown butter — and the difference between all three! 

Butter 101: How to Make Clarified Butter, Ghee, and Brown Butter

Hi, let’s talk butter. All types of butter too! I don’t discriminate.

Clarified butter, ghee, and brown butter. I’m going to talk about it all. And trust me, it is all good (warning: this is totally where I get nerdy when it comes to food).  [Also, I apologize in advance to the person who requested, very politely, in the survey for me to share more recipes using less butter! I swear, this post was already planned!]

Clarified Butter

Are you familiar with clarified butter? I’m sure you are! A lot of people have a tendency to associate it with crab and lobster meat dunking or, sometimes, hollandaise sauce, but that doesn’t even begin to cover this stuff’s potential.

It is basically liquid gold.

Butter 101: How to Make Clarified Butter, Ghee, and Brown Butter

Or, more importantly, liquid gold in the cooking world. It’s possibilities and uses are endless.

To sum it up, butter consists of three things: butterfat, milk solids, and water. Most generic store-bought butter is generally 80% butterfat, 16-18% water (yes, really!), and about 1-2% butter solids. In fact, butter is required to be around 80% butterfat in the states.

Most European butters (or European-style butter, such as Plugra, which you can find in most grocery stores now) contain at minimum 82% butterfat. Homemade butter can be as high as 86% butterfat.

It doesn’t sound like a lot, but that small percentage of extra butterfat can make a huge difference in the baking world! The more butterfat, the greater the flavor, the less gluten will develop (tender, flaky pastries!), yada, yada, yada.

But that is an entirely different subject matter. I’m supposed to be talking about clarified butter, right? Well, clarified butter is essentially pure butterfat. No milk solids, no water, just pure butterfat.

Butter 101: How to Make Clarified Butter, Ghee, and Brown Butter

Why is clarified butter so special?

Well, there are lots of recipes and dishes that call for cooking with butter. But, as I’m sure many of you have experienced, unless you are cooking it over relatively low heat, it has a tendency to burn and smoke extremely quickly. Not good. That is the result of those pesky (but delicious) milk solids.

Once you make clarified butter and remove those milk solids, butterfat has a very high smoke point. Smoke point is a fancy way of describing the temperature that a fat can be heated to before it starts to smoke (and inevitably, burn).

Normal straight-from-the-fridge butter has a smoke point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Sounds high, but that is actually one of the lowest smoke points of any cooking fat.

Butter 101: How to Make Clarified Butter, Ghee, and Brown Butter

When you are cooking over high heat (sauteing, searing, stir frying, etc.), you are generally reaching temperatures in excess of 400 degrees Fahrenheit. So, what is clarified butter’s smoke point compared to other common cooking fats (such as extra virgin olive, canola, safflower, grape seed oil, etc.)?

450 degrees! You basically get an extra 100 degrees of cooking wiggle room. Isn’t that exciting? [Crickets?]

Clarified butter has a higher smoke point than coconut, grapeseed, lard or duck fat, sesame, avocado, canola, vegetable, and even sunflower oil! Yes, all of those! Butter also has amazing flavor.

Only three other oils can boast higher smoke points than clarified butter: safflower (the highest!), rice bran (second highest), and refined olive oil (note: not extra virgin).

Pretty amazing, right? Hence the liquid gold reference.

Butter 101: How to Make Clarified Butter, Ghee, and Brown Butter

Clarified butter became my life during culinary school. I can’t tell you how many pounds and pounds of it I made (or burned, oops) within that six-month period. I don’t want to know how many pounds and pounds of it I consumed.

Making clarified butter is not nearly as intimidating as it sounds, but it does require low heat, patience and a watchful eye. Since clarified butter will last in the fridge for at least a month (usually, longer), I prefer to make a large batch of it at a time (i.e. minimum of 2 sticks – 1/2 lb of butter).

Generally, you can expect to lose about 25% in volume once butter is clarified (1 cup of butter will yield roughly 3/4 cup clarified butter).

So how do you make it? As I mentioned earlier, clarified butter is pure butterfat. The goal is to remove the milk solids and allow the water content to evaporate during the heating process. Once the butter melts and begins to heat, the butter will begin to foam (I carefully skim and remove the whey that rises to the top the entire time–don’t discard it!).

It will also splutter (that is the water evaporating).

Butter 101: How to Make Clarified Butter, Ghee, and Brown Butter

The milk solids will slowly begin to sink to the bottom of the pan.

You can tell when the clarified butter is nearly done when it stops spluttering (sign that the water has evaporated), and the bubbles become very, very small and you literally can’t hear much of anything happening anymore (see below).

Butter 101: How to Make Clarified Butter, Ghee, and Brown Butter

This is the stage where you need to be extra careful, as at this stage, the milk solids have sunk to the bottom of the pan and can easily begin to brown. For clarified butter, you do not want the butter solids to brown at all. This is the crucial difference between clarified butter and ghee.

Remove the butter from the heat, allow it to sit for a few minutes, and then pour the clarified butter through a cheesecloth lined fine-meshed sieve, and into a heatproof jar to store! It should be clear and light yellow in color.

Celebrate by making these smoked salmon potato tartines, these crepes with whipped meyer lemon ricotta, these swiss chard and feta phyllo purses, this 30-minute beef bourguignon, or practically anything your heart desires!

Butter 101: How to Make Clarified Butter, Ghee, and Brown Butter

Ghee

Have you heard of ghee?

Ghee is Indian clarified butter. It is used in practically every traditional Indian (as well as other cultures) dish, and while it is the most unfamiliar of cooking butters, ghee has definitely become a cooking buzzword over the last few years.

Butter 101: How to Make Clarified Butter, Ghee, and Brown Butter

Traditional clarified butter and ghee are very similar (and can be used interchangeably for the most part)–check back tomorrow for a recipe using it!), but there is one crucial difference between the two.

Unlike clarified butter, which is cooked just to the point where the water evaporates and the milk solids separate (and sink), ghee is cooked until the milk solids begin to caramelize.

If you’ve ever made true brown butter (I’ll get to that in a bit), you know that when milk solids brown, butter becomes very fragrant and nutty. Ghee has a little bit of that.

Butter 101: How to Make Clarified Butter, Ghee, and Brown Butter

Since the butter is cooked longer, ghee is also more golden in color. But like clarified butter, ghee does not contain milk solids and is pure butterfat.

Once the milk solids caramelize lightly, the next step is the strain it, as you did with the clarified butter.

Butter 101: How to Make Clarified Butter, Ghee, and Brown Butter

Brown Butter

Ahh, yes, brown butter. Brown butter is that magical thing that happens when you allow the milk solids in butter to caramelize…but you take it one step further. Maybe two to three steps, actually, if we’re getting technical.

You’ve probably accidentally made it on the stove many times, experienced that split second where you go, “Woh, what is that amazing thing that smells so good, like caramel, toasted nuts, and all good things in life?!!”, and then within five seconds of that, cursed an expletive because you got distracted and it turns from perfectly golden brown to….black (and burned).

Butter 101: How to Make Clarified Butter, Ghee, and Brown Butter

Seriously, brown butter happens just before regular butter begins to burn (i.e. not good), so you have to be extra careful when making this stuff!

The critical difference between clarified butter and ghee, and its somewhat related cousin, brown butter, is that brown butter contains the milk solids!

Yes, you get to keep  and use all those delicious golden brown milk solids.

Butter 101: How to Make Clarified Butter, Ghee, and Brown Butter

Brown butter is also cooked much longer than ghee, to the point where the butterfat turns a deep amber brown. The more golden, the better! It has ridiculous flavor!

You can certainly cook with brown butter, but since it does contain the milk solids and has already been cooked, it is better added to a dish at the last minute or cooked over very low heat (for a very short amount of time).

The absolute best thing to make with brown butter, in my opinion, is baked goods! All the baked goods!

Butter 101: How to Make Clarified Butter, Ghee, & Brown Butter

After you make the brown butter, put it in a container, allow it to solidify in the fridge, and use it in place of regular butter in practically any recipe.

Melt it again and add it to a glaze! Make frosting! Bake some brown butter banana bread! Heck, churn it into ice cream!

Seriously, the world is your oyster.

How to make Clarified Butter, Ghee, & Brown Butter

Ingredients:

What You'll Need:

  • high-quality unsalted butter (I recommend a minimum of 8 ounces, or 2 sticks, at a time)
  • cheesecloth
  • fine-meshed sieve
  • heatproof glass jars or containers, for storing

Directions:

How to Make Clarified Butter:

  1. Line a fine-meshed sieve with a few layers of cheesecloth and set over a large heatproof measuring cup. Set aside.
  2. Cut the butter into 1/2-inch slices and place in a medium saucepan. Heat the butter over low heat until completely melted.
  3. Allow the butter to simmer over low heat, as the butter bubbles and splutters, foam--or whey proteins--will begin to rise to the surface. I use a metal spoon and carefully skim the surface (do not stir the butter) to remove the foam during the entire cooking process (I have a small bowl set aside for it). This allows you to see the butter and watch it more carefully. Don't throw out the foam, it can be stirred into sauce, tossed with pasta, etc. Adjust the heat as necessary.
  4. Once the foam dissipates  (time will vary depending on quality and quantity of butter) and the butter starts spluttering, very small, clear bubbles should form on the surface of the butter. This is a sign that it is almost finished cooking, watch carefully.
  5. Remove the butter from the heat immediately, allow it to sit for a few minutes, skim any remaining foam that rises to the surface, and carefully pour the butter through the cheesecloth lined sieve, leaving the solids on the bottom of the pan. Allow the butter to cool before transferring to a heatproof jar or container. Use or store in the refrigerator (it should keep for at minimum a month, if not significantly longer).

How to Make Ghee:

  1. Repeat Steps 1-4 above.
  2. Once the foam dissipates and the butter starts spluttering, continue to cook the butter just until the milk solids begin to caramelize and turn golden brown on the bottom of the pan. It will be slightly more golden in color than clarified butter, and just begin to have a light nutty fragrance.
  3. Remove the butter from the heat immediately, allow it to sit for a few minutes, skim any remaining foam that rises to the surface, and carefully pour the butter through the cheesecloth lined sieve, so that the cheesecloth catches the milk solids. Allow the butter to cool before transferring to a heatproof jar or container. Use or store in the refrigerator (it should keep for at minimum a month, if not significantly longer).

How to Make Brown Butter:

  1. Cut the butter into 1/2-inch slices and place in a medium saucepan. Heat the butter over low heat until completely melted.
  2. Allow the butter to simmer, at this point you can increase the heat to medium to speed up the process (however, watch it carefully the whole time).
  3. Continue to cook the butter as it splutters and bubbles, stirring continuously with a rubber spatula and scraping the bottom of the pan continuously (this will help the milk solids caramelize more evenly). The foam will eventually subside, small bubbles will form, and the milk solids will begin to caramelize lightly. Reduce the heat to low and swirl the pan until the butter becomes fragrant (nutty) and a light amber in color.
  4. Turn off the heat immediately (the butter will continue to cook) and transfer the butter to a heatproof bowl, be sure to scrape any remaining brown bits that stick to the bottom of the saucepan into the bowl--this is the best and most flavorful part of brown butter! Cool the butter, and then store in a glass jar or container. Use or store in the refrigerator (brown butter will keep for at minimum a week, if not longer).

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P.S. Did I seriously just write 1500 words about butter? My grandmother would be so proud of me right now!