Even as the spring equinox approached, nature continued to dump record-breaking quantities of snow on my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. That time of year, the weather sometimes interferes with the work of my husband, a modern-day milkman making deliveries in a biodiesel truck painted black and white to look like a Holstein cow. During an especially blustery week last spring, the weather kept him off the road and left us with 60 pints of cream packed in snow outside the back door. There are only so many ways a family of four can enjoy the luxuries of fresh cream, and I knew that if we didn't do something with it in the next few days, the luscious bounty would go to waste.
That's when some friends from my yoga community suggested I turn the cream into clarified butter, or ghee. Ghee is made by heating unsalted butter until it clarifies into its separate components: lactose (sugar), milk protein, and fat. Over a low flame, the moisture is removed, and the sugar and protein separate into curds that sink to the bottom and are later discarded. What's left is rich, sweet, nutty ghee—a substitute for butter or oil in any recipe. With its high smoking point of up to 485 degrees, it's perfect for frying and sautéing. Its robust flavor makes it a great seasoning for everything from oatmeal to rice, steamed vegetables, and curries. It's delicious spread over any type of bread. And it's lactose free and easy to digest.
Down to the Essence
Throughout India, ghee is a sacred symbol of auspiciousness and a household staple in medicine cabinets as well as kitchen pantries. Kept out of sunlight and free of moisture, ghee has a shelf life of 12 months without refrigeration, though some people prefer to refrigerate it. In Ayurveda, India's 5,000-year-old system of healing, ghee is as much medicine as it is food, says Rima Shah, a certified Ayurvedic practitioner at the Kanyakumari Ayurveda Education and Retreat Center in Milwaukee. "It is completely nourishing and healing," Shah explains. "It is considered the single most powerful food for increasing ojas, the vital life force that lives in all of us. Ojas is the essence of health and well-being."
According to Shah, ghee makes appearances throughout the ancient texts, which give glowing descriptions of its brilliance and light. In the Mahabharata, the great Indian epic that includes the Bhagavad Gita, ghee is described as an essence flowing through and sustaining the world.
In Vedic texts, ghee is a kind of metaphor for the Divine, says ghee maker Peter Malakoff, an Ayurvedic practitioner in Bolinas, California. "As the Divine is hidden in creation and could be considered to be the essence of creation, so ghee is hidden in milk and is considered to be the essence of milk," he says.
The Right Churn
In much of the United States, you can buy ghee at natural food stores—or you can order it online. But many people make their own from butter. Malakoff recommends starting with organic, unsalted butter to avoid concentrating hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics.
Of course, I had cream, so my first step was to make butter out of it. Using an old countertop mixer, I set up shop at night when I could work undisturbed. While the beaters mixed and the bowl spun, I puttered around the kitchen, periodically checking on the cream. I was putting dishes away when suddenly the whir of the mixer was joined by a loud sloshing sound. Liquid was spraying all over the counter and floor. I had a mess, yes, but I also had butter.
As I churned through 19 more batches, I listened for that distinct sloshing sound, signaling a newly formed ball of butter swimming in buttermilk. I didn't finish until early in the morning and fell into an easy sleep, knowing my fridge was brimming with 24 pounds of fresh butter.
The next two evenings were devoted to transforming my homemade butter into ghee. I filled my biggest pot with butter and turned up the heat to let it melt evenly and simmer before the lactose and protein began to separate from the fat.
During the butter's time on the stove, the only thing you have to do is listen and watch. Allowed to move and roll, the butter makes a nervous frying noise. Then it quiets. While the butter is simmering, it's important to resist the urge to stir or skim the liquid. If you leave the butter alone, even as it sizzles and foams, the lactose and milk protein separate naturally from the golden essence that is ghee. This can take anywhere from 20 minutes to hours, depending on how much butter you start with and the size of your pot.
It was easy to see when the ghee was ready. Everything got quiet, and the bubbles were clear. The aroma was lovely, like croissants. Then I took the pot off the heat and let it rest for about 30 minutes. Once it settled, I poured the ghee through a doubled piece of cheesecloth (an unbleached coffee filter works well, too) into clean, dry airtight containers. In India, the curds are used to make ghee lamps. In my kitchen, they became a special treat for the dog.
Before closing the containers, I let the ghee cool completely to prevent condensation from forming on the lid. This step, says Malakoff, helps keep moisture out so that the ghee will last up to a year. (Always using a clean, dry utensil to scoop out your ghee helps, too.) Ghee's melting point is close to room temperature, so the consistency can fluctuate between a solid like butter and a liquid like olive oil. One pound of butter makes roughly three-fourths of a pound of ghee; I collected 17 pints of the stuff, maybe 18 if you include what was lost to spillage, incomplete filtering, skin care, and sampling.
After three days of stripping down dairy to its purest form, it was easy for me to understand Malakoff's link between making ghee and connecting to the Divine. My own thoughts settled throughout the project, leaving me with the quiet, unperturbed awareness that accompanies meditation. A sense of peace comes with taking part in a process that spans millennia, and I found myself happily watching the ghee run through the filter, admiring its easy viscosity, and inspired by the sweet unobscured flow of liquid gold.
Suzanne VanGilder is a yoga teacher working on her Anusara certification.