Coconut Ghee, the Perfect Cooking Fat
Mark’s Daily Apple, my favorite Paleo/Primal blog, ran a terrific post on edible oils yesterday, here. Mark Sisson, the author, asked for comments on readers’ favorite edible oils and I passed on my coconut ghee recipe, a synergistic blend of two fabulous fats: coconut oil and clarified butter or ghee. Mark said he’d never heard of it. So I’m passing on the details here. [UPDATE: Mark did a post on coconut ghee and kindly cited me, here.]
I first learned about making ghee and clarified butter from either the Weston A. Price Foundation or from Sally Fallon Morell’s cookbook Nourishing Traditions. (Of course it’s much more than a cookbook, it’s a paradigm-shifting nutrition course and political manifesto, disguised as a cookbook.) Eventually I tried making clarified butter myself. Nothing could be simpler: Melt butter, skim off the skin that forms on top, pour it through a cheesecloth to strain, and leave behind the solids at the bottom of the pan. Clarified butter lasts longer and has a higher smoke point than regular butter.
As usual, when I get really interested in a topic, I read everything I can get my hands on about it, and then I make it complicated. I did that with ghee, except that it never got all that complicated, and along the way I got the idea to combine it with coconut oil and found I had come up with the perfect cooking fat. It’s neutral but not tasteless. In fact it’s so yummy you’ll want to eat it straight. (Go ahead!)
Some background: ghee is the Indian variation on clarified butter and considered a sacred food in that ancient culture. Clarifying butter is the simple process of removing the water and protein from butterfat. The resulting pure butterfat is less likely to burn and keeps longer without refrigeration as you’ve removed the proteins (whey and casein) and water. What makes it ghee instead of simply clarified butter is cooking it longer and at higher temperature. Why would you do that? According to Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking, once the water is evaporated from melted butter, you raise the temperature to brown the milk solids (proteins), which adds flavor and “generates antioxidant compounds that delay the onset of rancidity.” Wow!
The first time I grasped the possibilities of ghee was last summer when I was making it for the first time in awhile. I was trying to do too many different things at once, as usual, and the melting butter got too hot and started to burn. I turned off the store, let the butter cool while I did something else, forgot about it, then it got hard so I couldn’t filter out the solids. So I reheated it. Got too hot again, so I cooled it again. I may have even gone a third round. Now I’m not sure exactly which part of this process was the key step, but the resulting ghee had the most irresistible caramel fragrance and taste. It was out of this world.
I can’t even remember whether I added coconut oil to that particular batch but I have done so ever since. I haven’t been able to exactly recreate the taste of that almost-burned batch of ghee, but I believe Harold McGee when he says the additional cooking of the melted butter flavors the ghee and creates antioxidants.
The basic procedure:
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt a pound or two of top-quality unsalted butter, from pastured cows if at all possible. McGee says it should be heated to 190 degrees Fahrenheit (90C) but I never measure the temperature; just don’t do this on high heat—low to medium-low should suffice. Leave the lid off your saucepan because you want the water to evaporate. If you’re new to this, don’t heat it too high and keep your eye on things so it doesn’t burn. The whey protein will rise to the top and the butter will bubble and froth for awhile. A thin skin will form on the top as the whey dries out.
When the bubbling stops, you’ll notice that the remaining milk solids (mainly casein protein) will have dropped to the bottom of the pan. You can now skim the top and pour the pure butter oil off the solids. Strain through a cheesecloth laid over a metal strainer if you like into clean jars. You’ve now clarified butter! To make it ghee, once the water is evaporated, raise the temperature to 250 degrees F. To brown the milk solids a bit. You’ll still strain them off as above, but not before they’ve left a tantalizing taste and scent and those valuable antioxidants.
According to McGee, the solids from the bottom of your pan are saved to make sweets in India. They taste great on popcorn, vegetables, or simply eaten with a spoon! Or if you’re sensitive to casein, feed it to your dogs; they’ll think they’re in heaven. (My solution to all food disposal problems is compost it or dogify it.)
To turn your clarified butter or ghee into coconut ghee, fill each jar only about half to two-thirds full. Spoon coconut oil (room temperature is fine, whether liquid or solid) into the warm ghee to nearly fill your jar (be careful not to overfill or you’ll waste precious oil). Stir from time to time as the coconut oil melts and blends with the ghee. When the coconut oil is liquified, screw the lid on tight and shake the jar vigorously to blend the oils. Let cool on the counter or in the refrigerator. Shake occasionally during the cooling to make sure the mixture stays blended until it solidifies.
You can refrigerate your coconut ghee or store at room temperature. It should stay good for months unless your kitchen is extremely hot, and then it will still be good for a long time but it may melt. I have not tested the limits of how long it will last, because I eat it up so fast. I use coconut ghee as my basic cooking fat. You can combine with other oils such as olive oil, you can spread it on crackers, you can lick it off your fingers. It works for both savory and sweet dishes, much like butter, and is a good way to incorporate more coconut oil into your diet if you don’t like a coconutty taste on everything. It won’t taste like coconut. It’s not exactly like butter or regular ghee either. It’s perfect.
For further reading (and to check my facts):
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee, pp 36-37. He writes a New York Times column and a blog called The Curious Cook.
Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes, by Jennifer McLagan, pp 23-25. She also wrote Bones: Recipes, History, and Lore, which I’m dying to read.