What Is Clarified Butter?
If you've ever tried to make a recipe that calls for clarified butter and subbed in regular, old butter because you didn't have clarified butter at home or couldn't understand the difference between clarified butter and regular butter, you're definitely not alone. Clarified butter is often lauded as "healthy" alternative to butter, but it looks exactly like butter and smells exactly like butter. So how can clarified butter, also called ghee, be so much better for you than regular butter? What is clarified butter, anyway? Well, to understand that, you have to understand a thing or two about the way butter is made first.
Butter is made by churning cream until it separates into creamy milk fats and buttermilk. Pour out the buttermilk, leave the milk fats, and just like that, you've got homemade butter. And though butter is primarily composed of milk fats, as Daniel Gritzer points out in Serious Eats, only 80% of butter is actually fat. The other 20% of the butter is a combination of water and milk proteins. Vegetable or coconut oil, for reference, are 100% fat, as are most of the fats with which you cook.
The goal of clarifying butter, then, is to rid your butter of the other junk—specifically those milk proteins and water. You'll be left with just the milk fat, which is what makes butter buttery in the first place.
That's why, if you want to make clarified butter at home, you heat up regular butter in a saucepan until it boils. The heat evaporates the excess water. You then strain the liquid butter to get rid of the milk solids; they're the white things that bubble up on top of the pure, yellow milk fats. And that's it. That's clarified butter, the so-called liquid gold. Store it in an air-tight container, and use it just like regular butter or any other cooking fat. As Jiselle Basile points out, clarified butter has a higher smoke point than regular butter, which means that it's particularly great for roasts or sautéing over high heat.
You'll often see clarified butter used interchangeably with ghee, which is another type of clarified butter, common in Indian cooking. The difference between clarified butter and ghee is that ghee is heated until the milk solids are brown and caramelized and sink to the bottom of the pan; as a result, ghee has a nuttier taste than regular clarified butter.
Whether you're using ghee or clarified butter, it's the removal of the milk proteins that matters, and that's why these clarified butters are approved for dairy-free diets like Whole30. According to Dallas Hartwig, who cowrote The Whole30, it's the dairy proteins in butter, like casein and whey, that "do some ugly things in your body, and contain growth factors and immune factors which negatively impact your health," not the milk fats.
The alleged health benefits of ghee or clarified butter seem to be endless, with origins as far back as Indian Ayurvedic medicine. According to Mora Gluskin at Byrdie, ghee and clarified butter are rich in vitamins A, D, E, and K; support digestive health; promote flexibility by "lubricat[ing] connective tissues;" and even help you lose weight. Kourtney Kardashian revealed that she starts every morning by drinking a melted teaspoon of ghee, explaining that it, "nourishes all of the tissues in the body, including the nervous system, translating into calm energy and clarity of the mind throughout the day."
There is some truth in all of these health claims, backed by scientific research, but ultimately, clarified butter is just another type of butter. It's still got all of the saturated fat that a regular tablespoon of butter does, since, you know, it's literally just butterfat. So yes, ghee is great for a lot of reasons, but eating it straight from the jar isn't going to turn you into a supermodel. That doesn't mean you shouldn't have a jar of it in your pantry, just in case. And hey, if nothing else, it'll make for a mean hollandaise sauce.