Clarified butter and ghee are both made from butter, and you will often see them described as being identical or interchangeable. Ghee is often used as a synonym for clarified butter. From a culinary standpoint, this is wrong. Cooks who have experience with both can recognize that they are different products with different properties and applications. We compare their characteristics in this SPICEography Showdown.
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How does clarified butter differ from ghee?
While ghee and clarified butter start as the same dairy product, they are processed to liquid fats a little differently. The process of making clarified butter is simple: melt butter and pour off the translucent yellow part. The yellow oil that makes up the top layer of melted butter is butterfat, and it is considered clarified butter once it is separated from the milk proteins at the bottom. Because most of the process is just melting butter, clarified butter is relatively quick and easy to make.
In comparison, ghee requires a few extra steps. To make ghee, you will need to simmer the butter until the milk proteins solidify and caramelize. As you might expect, this takes longer than simply melting the butter. Once the milk proteins have precipitated out of the liquid, you will strain the butterfat with cheesecloth or a fine strainer to remove them. Before the milk proteins have been removed, what you have is brown butter (also called beurre noisette). Once the milk proteins are gone, you have ghee.
The different processing methods mean that clarified butter and ghee have distinct flavor profiles. Clarified butter’s flavor is simple, rich butteriness, and it can have a hint of sweetness depending on the quality of the butter. Ghee has a nutty caramel note that comes from the fact that its milk proteins have been toasted. It is considerably more flavorful than clarified butter.
The process of melting the butter as opposed to simmering it until it caramelizes can affect the color. Clarified butter is typically bright yellow while ghee can is often a pale amber.
Can you use clarified butter as a substitute for ghee and vice versa?
Clarified butter can be an effective substitute for ghee though it is not ideal. Because it is missing the same milk proteins that are removed from ghee, clarified butter has a high smoke point. You can use it to cook at very high temperatures.
Because it hasn’t been simmered for a long period, it won’t have ghee’s distinctive nutty taste. As a result, Indian dishes where it is used as a ghee substitute will be lacking an important component of their flavor profile.
Ghee can work as a substitute for clarified butter, primarily as a frying oil. It has a nutty, caramel flavor profile, so it may add unwanted flavors to some dishes. It makes sense to use it in dishes with highly flavored ingredients since it may not be as noticeable.
When should you use clarified butter, and when should you use ghee?
Use clarified butter as a dip for shellfish like lobster and crab. It is also a key ingredient for making hollandaise sauce, and you can use it as a topping for popcorn. It works well as a frying oil for cooking fish and vegetables.
Use ghee as the cooking oil in Indian curries and as a topping for traditional Indian breads like naan.