Butter and ghee both come from cow’s milk and have many of the same properties as a result. That said, there are striking differences between the two that will affect how they work in your dishes. Before you choose one or the other, look at the SPICEography Showdown below.
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How does butter differ from ghee?
Butter and ghee are composed differently. Butter still contains milk proteins while ghee doesn’t. Ghee is also sometimes referred to as clarified butter because it has had most of its milk proteins removed.
Because they are composed differently, butter and ghee have different flavors. Butter has a rich and creamy flavor profile from its fat and milk proteins. The simmering process used to convert butter to ghee caramelizes the fat. The caramelized fat takes on a distinctly nutty flavor.
Butter and ghee burn at dramatically different temperatures. One of the reasons that you can’t cook at high heat with butter is the fact that its milk proteins will burn. You can use ghee to cook at much higher temperatures than is possible with butter. Butter can’t be heated above 302 degrees Fahrenheit (150 °C) without burning while it is possible to cook with ghee at 480 degrees.
Butter and ghee have different lifespans when stored at room temperature. Bacteria need moisture to thrive and butter contains a lot of it. Because most of its moisture has been removed, ghee is not as hospitable an environment for microbes. Its lack of moisture is why it can last for years without refrigeration. Butter must be stored in the refrigerator, or it can go rancid in a matter of days.
Butter is a staple in the West and many other parts of the world as well. You can find it in most grocery stores, and it is usually not particularly expensive. Outside of India and the Indian diaspora communities, ghee is not widely known or used. You can find it in some well-stocked grocery stores and specialty Indian stores, but it is not a common product. When it is available, it is usually considerably more expensive than butter.
Butter is a little less dense in terms of calories when compared to ghee. The evaporation of the water content and milk proteins concentrates the fat making ghee a more calorie-heavy food.
Can you use butter as a substitute for ghee and vice versa?
Butter is a great substitute for ghee because you can make it into ghee if you have enough time. If you don’t, you can still use it for some applications like topping various breads from the subcontinent like naan and dosa. You cannot use butter as a ghee substitute for frying because of the low temperature at which it burns.
You can use ghee as a substitute for butter in most applications. It works fine for baking and its slight nuttiness won’t be a problem in most recipes that require butter.
When should you use butter, and when should you use ghee?
Use butter as a spread for bread. Its low cost makes it an ideal everyday food item. Its creaminess and moisture content make it great in baking as well.
If you are making dishes from the subcontinent, use ghee. Its ability to withstand high temperatures and its mild nutty flavor make it the perfect fat for biryani, curries, and Indian breads.