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Ghee, a Staple of Indian Cuisine, Is A Sublime Treat

Gopala, Shyam, Mohan, Govinda … the charmer with several names, is best known as Krishna, the blue-blooded reincarnation of Vishnu, the Preserver.  Krishna was born into royalty; his parents, Devaki and Vasudeva, were imprisoned by the evil Kamsa, a demon who usurped their thrones in Mathura, a town along the banks of  India’s river Yamuna.

Kamsa was warned that the eighth son born to Vasudeva would be the cause of his demise. So the first six times Devaki, who was his sister, gave birth to a son, Kamsa made a visit and quickly destroyed the child. The seventh son was transferred magically into the womb of another of Vasudeva’s wives, Rohini.

Escape from death

When Vasudeva’s  eighth son was born, it was during the still of midnight as the shimmering light of a full moon filtered through the bars of the humble prison. Vasudeva placed the baby, who was destined to bring order back to Mathura, in a wicker basket and perched it on his head. As he had been promised by Lord Vishnu, who was aware of Kamsa’s vengeful campaign, Vasudeva found the door to his cell miraculously unlocked, the guards drugged. When he and the child reached the banks of the Yamuna, Vasudeva’s qualms about crossing the river dissipated: it magically parted, making his task of delivering the boy to safety an easy one. A cowherd in the town of Gokhul found the beautiful baby and he and his wife, thrilled to have a son, raised him as their own. They named him Krishna.

Word of Krishna’s antics spread quickly through the tightly-knit community. A series of signs and miraculous events foretold  of the boy’s pre-destined celestial purpose: to kill Kamsa and bring happiness, beauty and order, which were nonexistent under the demon’s regime, back to the people. Krishna’s handsome good looks, lightheartedness and mischievous demeanor gave every mother in town a joyous heartbreak.

Krishna, Dairy Thief

His penchant for milk, cream and butter became well known. No dairy products could be left within reach for fear of their being devoured within seconds. Whenever cream was collected to make butter, it was amassed in clay pots and strung up high, between the loftiest treetops. Krishna coaxed his fellow cowherds to form a human pyramid and he would soon be found at its apex, gulping his prize with great satisfaction.

It could be said that his love of dairy was instrumental in compelling Krishna to develop the ingenuity and physical strength that eventually led to his defeat of Kamsa in a wrestling match years later. Krishna fulfilled his purpose and restored all that was just and human to Mathura, his native land.


DON'T use margarine or any butter substitutes that want you to think they’re just like the real deal.

DO use a heavy-bottomed pan to prevent the butter from scorching. Cast iron, stainless steel, carbon steel, and ceramic-coated cast iron are all fair game.  I use a cast-iron or carbon steel wok if I happen to be making a large batch, as the fat seasons the pan.

DON'T turn up the heat beyond the low setting, as much as you may be tempted to do so; if you do, the milk solids will start to burn.

DO make sure the glass jar is clean and dry before pouring in the ghee. Let the ghee cool completely before screwing on the lid. Moisture will promote the growth of mold.

Cream to butter to ghee

The process of churning fresh cream into butter is still widely practiced in homes all across India. But this is just an intermediary step. Classic Indian cooking always calls for ghee, or clarified butter. Once the milk solids have been removed from butter, its shelf life is extended exponentially and there is no need for refrigeration. Ghee also has a much higher smoke point than non-clarified butter, making it ideal for deep frying.

In my home when I was growing up, each morning Amma skimmed cream from a saucepan filled with hot milk. Once enough was at hand, she squatted on the floor with her deep pot and long-handled wooden beater. Within minutes white, silky-smooth butter separated and floated to the top, weaning itself from the thin whey or buttermilk below. Amma scooped handfuls of the butter and placed it in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. I always happened to be there just in the nick of time to steal a few scoops, Krishna-like, its sweetness coated my tongue, the name maakhan chor (butter thief) rang in my ears. 

Stainless steel tumblers collected the buttermilk, to be drunk in thirst-quenching gulps while the freshly churned butter melted on low heat and milk solids were skimmed and discarded. The clear fat, now turned into ghee, rested in a chipped orange porcelain jar, nutty and pure, waiting to bless every dish it would touch with its heavenly aroma and flavor. The taste is truly sublime.

Ghee is widely available in stores. It is not easy on the pocketbook, so be prepared to plunk down your hard-earned money for the convenience, should you not have 15 to 20 minutes of free time to spend in the kitchen. I often splurge and buy ghee imported from India, only because the cows (or water buffaloes, depending on where the milk came from) graze on a different diet and the ghee has a unique flavor not found in America’s dairy land. But making your own is well worth the time and patience.


Makes about 12 ounces (1½ cups)


1 pound unsalted butter


1. Line a fine-mesh tea strainer with a piece of cheesecloth, set it over a clean, dry glass measuring cup or pint-size canning jar, and set aside.

2. Melt the butter in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally to ensure an even melt (otherwise, the bottom of the block melts and starts to bubble while the top half remains firm). Once the butter melts, you will notice that a lot of foam is gathering on the surface. Scoop the foam out with a spoon or just let it be; the melted butter will eventually stop foaming and start to subside. Now you can start to carefully skim off the foam. Some of the milk solids will settle at the bottom and start to brown lightly. This light browning is what gives Indian ghee its characteristic nutty flavor. This process will take 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Once the liquid appears quite clear (like oil) with a light amber hue, pour it through the cheesecloth-lined strainer, leaving the browned milk solids behind, and set it aside to cool.

4. When the ghee is cool, pour it into a storage jar and seal it. Keep it at room temperature, right next to your other bottled oils; it will solidify, even at room temperature. (I don’t find it necessary to refrigerate ghee, but if you wish, by all means do so. I have kept mine at room temperature for many months, without any concern for rancidity or spoilage. Because ghee has no milk solids in it, and that’s what can turn butter rancid, I do as millions in India do, and leave it out.

Photo: Ghee. Credit: Raghavan Iyer

Zester Daily contributor Raghavan Iyer is a cookbook author, culinary educator, spokesperson and consultant to numerous national and international clients, including General Mills, Bon Appetit Management Company, Target and Canola. He co-founded the Asian Culinary Arts Institutes, Ltd. and has written three cookbooks, most recently the award-winning "660 Curries." His articles have appeared in Eating Well, Fine Cooking, Saveur and Gastronomica, and he has been a guest on TV and radio shows throughout the U.S. and Canada. Iyer sells spices at

  • Leela Sud 11·6·12

    Ghee is still very popular in India, but most of us here in the states no longer use it in cooking.
    It does add a lot to Indian cooking.

  • Raghavan Iyer 11·6·12

    Leela thanks for taking the time to read it and comment. Even a teaspoon swirled into a dish before serving makes for a rich-tasting but less-fattening result (when compared to using it as a base to stir-fry, etc.).

  • Abby 11·7·12

    I am vegan and have used unrefined extra virgin coconut oil in recipes that call for ghee. I know it isn’t the same flavor, but it is rich and delicious. Any other suggestions for a vegan substitute?

  • Raghavan Iyer 11·7·12

    Abby unfortunately i don’t have a good alternative to the flavors of ghee. The coconut oil gives it a different dimension and that certainly would work for your stir-frying needs – you could try a nut oil (like almond) but some of them can be a bit too strong. Hope this helps. I personally do love coconut oil as well.