Maybe this is one of the first times you’re hearing about it, or maybe your family or friends have been cooking with it for years, but the questions are still on your mind: What is ghee? How do I use it? How is it different from butter?
In the showdown of ghee vs. butter, the nutritional values and behaviors of each ingredient have a lot to tell us about food science and the subtleties of the fats we put in our bodies.
What’s the Difference Between Ghee and Butter?
The trick is, ghee actually is butter—it’s clarified butter. You can make it yourself by rendering butter, which means melting it down, evaporating the water content, and skimming off the milk solids, leaving liquid fats.
As a result, ghee is shelf-stable, friendly to lactose-free diets, and especially useful for cooking at high temperatures.
The distinct nutty taste of ghee, innovated originally in India, comes from toasting the milk solids to just before their burning point before skimming them off. It’s essentially brown butter with a different chemical profile.
Butter is a product of whipping or churning whole milk past the stage of aeration until its fats separate from the milk liquid and congeal. It is not cooked or heated beyond the energy generated from the churning process. Some of the butter you find in grocery stores will have added salt and food coloring, but each butter’s taste is also affected by what the cows eat: many people maintain that grass-fed butter is sweetest.
Ghee is a cornerstone of the Indian Ayurvedic diet which aims to restore balance and circulation to all the body’s systems. But with its concentration of purified fat, is ghee better for you than butter?
Benefits of Ghee and Butter: Which is Healthier?
Ghee isn’t definitively better for you than butter. There are around 102 calories in a tablespoon of butter, and 120 in one tablespoon of ghee. But each offers different strategies for calibrating your diet.
Stocked with Healthy Fats
Both ghee and butter are high in saturated fat. What we call fats are made of fatty acids, which we need to coat and process proteins. In ghee, easily digestible medium- and short-chain fatty acids make up the majority of the saturated fat content. Though it can lead to heart disease in very high amounts, saturated fat in moderation helps regulate blood sugar—and therefore our feelings of energy and hunger. For weight-loss or medical reasons, if you’re on a fat-restricting diet, regulate your consumption of ghee much as you would butter.
Ayurvedic nutritionists point to ghee’s high concentration of butyric fatty acid for the boost it can provide to immunity and the digestive process, as well as regulate cholesterol. Ghee also contains a small amount of linoleic acid, usually found in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds—unusual for an animal product, and important in small quantities because our bodies can’t synthesize it. Both acids are thought to be anti-inflammatory.
Ghee can come in handy if you’re looking for the flavor of butter but need to avoid the lactose in dairy. It behaves similarly to butter in cooking, unlike other lactose-free oil options.
A Boost of Sustained Energy
Ghee’s high caloric and fat content make it an ideal power-up for extreme nutritional situations, such as a keto diet or a long day of sports or hiking. Bulletproof coffee often comes with a dab of ghee and a shot of MCT oil, another quick-digesting fat, to start a demanding day with optimal performance, especially if you’ll be lacking calories later. But a bulletproof can also be made simply with a pat of butter.
Nutritionists warn that ghee isn’t a cure-all substitute for butter: the caloric and fat differences aren’t drastically different. It’s still wise to watch how much you use, compared to the rest of your diet.
Is Butter Really Bad For You?
Like a lot of ingredients and diet trends, butter has gone through a love-hate rollercoaster. Since its fats are less concentrated, it contains fewer calories than ghee.
The most recent research indicates that the fat found in butter is a necessary part of a healthy diet. It’s integral to the functions of our muscles, nerves, and brain. The cholesterol in butter goes towards building and regenerating the structures of our bodies’ cells. Saturated fat, the primary fat in butter, isn’t quite as ‘clean’ in cholesterol as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and vegetable oils. But the same guidelines hold true for most foods high in fat: the benefits work best when eaten in moderation.
4 Ways To Cook With Ghee
You can use ghee in pretty much all the same ways as butter. The differences are subtle. Many Indian curries include ghee at the beginning of the process with onions and spices. To help you make your choice, here are some key comparisons between ghee and butter.
Brown your veggies
Ghee is especially good for sautéeing and roasting vegetables at high temperatures: the removal of volatile molecules in milk solids puts ghee’s smoke point at 400 degrees F. Butter, by contrast, burns at 350 degrees.
When you need an earthy taste
Butter tastes slightly lighter and creamier than ghee, which has a toasted quality. You will still need to cook with salt when using ghee, however. Melted butter will retain its neutrality and browning it in a saucepan can achieve a ghee-like effect in taste.
As a warm spread
Ghee works great to spread on toast or drizzled over popcorn, the same as butter! Ghee will solidify at cold temperatures like coconut oil, but if kept at room temperature, it’s a liquid and ready for artful pouring.
As a substitute for butter
We’ve already seen that butter is lower in calories than ghee. One tablespoon of ghee has 13 grams of fat to butter’s 11 grams. This may affect the quantities you use. In recipes, though, you can simply substitute the same amount of ghee for butter for a richer flavor, or use slightly less ghee since the caloric difference is small.
Healthy Alternative Options to Ghee and Butter
If you don’t have ghee or butter on hand, many oils can give your dishes the flavors and healthy fats you need.
Though it burns easily, extra virgin olive oil has a beautifully delicate, savory flavor and can replace butter on bread or sautéeing with a similar calorie count. Sprays open it up as a lower-calorie option or a baking helper.
Another option with the same calorie-count as butter is avocado oil, one of the newest players in the alternative oil scene. It can withstand high heat, making it a great choice for grilling as well as frying. Coconut oil is even more versatile, as it fries well and can be used to moisturize skin and hair.
Vegetable oils like canola and grape-seed are the most neutral in flavor and they’re packed with those omega-3 fats and healthy, plant-based cholesterol. They’re ideal for frying and lining baking pans. In the end, there’s a niche for every healthy fat. Tailoring your choices to your cooking needs will let them shine nutritionally, too.
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