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Ghee vs. Butter: how are they different and which is healthier?

ghee vs. butter

It’s official — butter is back. Seriously, there’s a study on it called Is Butter Back. After a rough go in the 90’s with all the low fat diets, butter has finally redeemed itself from villian-hood and is again recognized as a relatively healthy fat option (that is as long as you’re not a hyper responder to saturated fat).

But it’s not back alone. Along with butter came its funky companion: ghee.

Ghee is also having a moment in the healthy fat department. While it may be new to the Western scene, ghee is anything but new. For thousands of years, ghee has been used in Ayurvedic therapies and Indian cooking. 

Despite its recent rise in Western popularity, many people are still unsure exactly what ghee is. So let’s break it down and look at the positives and negatives of incorporating more ghee (and butter) into your diet.

Then we’ll put ghee and butter in the ring and watch them punch it out.

Who wins?

First, let’s find some common ground.

How are ghee and butter the same?

Ghee and butter are both made from cow’s milk. In fact, butter is a precursor to ghee, so it’s no wonder the two gets so easily confused. Because they come from the same source, their nutritional profiles don’t vary wildly. They’re both composed of mostly fat, lending to their smooth and creamy textures. 

How are ghee and butter different?

While they share similarities, ghee and butter are not one and the same. Rather, ghee is a type of butter — specifically, it is highly clarified butter. It goes through a process to remove some of the milk solids and water. This process makes for a shelf stable product that doesn’t require refrigeration. It also gives ghee a higher smoke point than regular butter and adds a nutty, enhanced flavor that you won’t find in regular butter. 

The higher smoke point and lower protein count means ghee won’t damage when you cook with it like butter will. As such, it’s a healthier option for the sauté pan.

See also: why I don’t eat vegetable oil.

How is ghee made?

Ghee starts with unsalted butter. When the butter is heated, the fat naturally separates, leaving behind a liquid with the signature bright gold color of ghee. The golden liquid is then drained, separating out the the milk solids, which are then  discarded. What’s left is the liquid gold we know as ghee. 

What does ghee taste like?

Ghee tastes like butter’s older, more sophisticated brother. The clarification process adds a nutty, earthy flavor that really shines in both cooking and baking. It adds an intensity to the flavor reminiscent of a good, hearty olive oil. Because of this pungent flavor, a little ghee goes a long way. 

Which is healthier: butter of ghee?

Since “healthier” is not exactly a technical term, lets instead break down the composition of these two version of butter. Both butter and ghee are mostly comprised of fat with minimal protein or carbohydrates. Because ghee is a concentrated form of butter, it has slightly more fat than butter, including the healthy unsaturated fats. These fats contain butyric acid, a short chain fatty acid that has been studied for its ability to reduce inflammation and promote gut health by directly influencing the gastrointestinal flora. While further studies are needed, it has shown promise for improving IBS and other GI disorders 1. 

The winning argument for using butter over ghee comes for those that are sensitive to milk’s sugars and proteins. Many people have a sensitivity to lactose (a milk sugar) and casein (a milk protein). The process of making butter already limits most of the lactose and casein in butter, and only a small amount can be found in regular butter. The clarification process to make ghee further reduces this number to zero, making it an excellent choice for those with allergies or sensitivities. 

Ghee has helped butter rise from the ashes of its 90’s vilification with more and more studies every day showing that it has some great effects on heart health markers. It has been shown to increase the good cholesterol, HDL 2. Ghee has been identified as a relatively safer option when compared to butters lipid profile 3, but remember that these profiles are nearly identical.

Researchers looked to a rural population in India that had significantly lower prevalence of heart disease  in men who consumed higher amount of ghee to further explain its therapeutic effects. They found that high doses of ghee decreased serum cholesterol and triglycerides while increases resistance of LDL to oxidation.

Further, they found health benefits for the liver, anticonvulsant activity, improved cognition, and enhancement of wound healing related to ghee ingestion 4.

How do I swap ghee for butter in cooking and baking?

This part is easy. The ghee to butter swap is one to one. So if a recipe calls for 1/4 cup of butter, you can substitute that butter with ghee. Note that ghee does have a slightly nutty taste and will alter the taste of the end result. But most people don’t notice a big different. 

Ghee’s smoke point is notably higher than that of butter. The smoke point of a fat refer to the temperature at which it — yep you guessed it — starts to smoke. This high smoke point makes it ideal for cooking at very high temperatures. 

How to make ghee

Yes, that’s right! You too can make ghee at home. First, simmer chopped up unsalted butter over medium-low in a heavy bottomed pot. Once melted, increase the heat to medium. This heat increase will add to the nutty flavor and also encourage separation. If you have a thermometer, stick it in the butter to make sure you don’t exceed butter’s smoke point of 350F. Let the butter roll through the foaming and bubbling process. After a few minutes, you’ll notice that the butter is beginning to separate. The milk proteins will rise to the top. As it separates, skim it from the top and discard. Here is where you need your patience. It takes time for all the butter to separate. As you remove the solids from the top, you’ll notice the butter becoming more and more clear with a golden hue. Once you’ve gotten as much of the surface skimmed as possible, you can pour it through a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth to remove any remaining solids. Now you’ve got ghee that is stable at room temperature for about a month.

Danielle Moore

Danielle Moore is a professional recipe developer, Nutrition expert, food photographer and lover of veggies. Read her full bio here.

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