Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Clarified Butter/Ghee

You've probably noticed a lot of references to clarified butter or ghee here. I had been content to use jarred ghee from the Indian market until I noticed how much it actually cost. The first time I had a recipe that called for it, I had made it at home, not knowing I could buy it in the store. That recipe, from an Indian Vegetarian Cooking book, directed you to bake a pound of butter in a 9x12 pan at very low heat (200F?) for a hour or two. (I think this may have been when I realized that good percentage of Indian cooking instructions are designed just to make you miserable. For some examples, take a look at the kitchen and cookware designs found in the book 100% India. Yikes). Needless to say, as soon as I saw that it was on the shelf, I started buying it pre-made.

So, as the pain in the butt factor drove me from making my own to buying it, my recent increased use of clarified butter (particularly with the hollandaise) made me more aware of the price. Staring at the $3.49 price tag for a small jar while whisking the sauce really bugged me. Thereby driving me back to making it on my own.

Basically, when clarifying butter, you're heating it to separate out the milk solids. Once those are removed, the butter can be heated much higher without burning. The second effect is to boil out the water content. Depending on what book you're reading, it's this second phase that makes clarified butter technically ghee.

A friend told me about his method, which was to nuke the butter and then skim off the solids with a swipe of the paper towel. Having read a few other sources, I realized that the microwave method sounded good, but you weren't going to get rid of the water well that way.

So, I got out my tiny glass sauce pans, chopped up some butter and set it going at medium-low/low heat. After a while, the solids came to the top. Here's the problem: skimming off the solids is a messy pain. I tried using the paper towel method, but a) you soak up some of the good stuff in the process and b) you use a LOT of paper towels. That's too much waste for me. On my second and third rounds, I tried my various slotted instruments, but no dice. I still had to resort to the paper towels. I'll look at the Chhopping Block tonight for a proper skimmer.

After I tackled the solids, I let it sit more to get the water out. This is really kind of neat. It seems that as the water molecules circulate to the bottom of the pan, they heat up enough to boil. So, you get these sudden small bubbles. It's like the movie versions of lava. I caught myself just getting mesmerized waiting for the next micro-boil. Anyway, I just let that go until the bursts stopped, like waiting for your microwave popcorn to stop popping.

Update: Okay, it seems there are two places the solids go: floating to the top (the foamy scum) and drifting to the bottom. So, it seems like straining it may be the best route to go. Also, my skimmer seems to be just fine. I couldn't find any that seemed better designed at the Chopping Block.

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