Ghee gives flavorful depth to Indian cooking

June 26, 2009|By LYNNE ROSSETTO KASPER / Scripps Howard News Service

Dear Lynne: I'm thinking about learning to cook Indian food and have been browsing recipes. It seems that a lot of recipes call for "ghee" instead of cooking oil. Can I use oil in its place? -- Angela from Stillwater

Dear Angela: You can substitute vegetable oil in most recipes calling for ghee. Use an oil with a high smoke point, like canola or peanut. That said, I think you should take a leap and try making your own ghee. It has a nutty, meaty flavor that adds a lot to a dish.

At its most basic, ghee is melted butter taken over the top. Where butter burns at low temperatures, ghee does not. The butter is slow-cooked, so all its water evaporates and its milk solids -- which are what burn easily -- separate from the butter's clear golden "oil." This is ghee, which holds for months in the refrigerator or another cool place.


Ghee is one of those ancient ingredients you can "read" for its many meanings in Indian culture. Food in India's traditions is seen as part of a cosmic and moral cycle, so ghee plays roles in religious beliefs, status and regional rituals.

This is how to make about 1-2/3 cups of ghee:

In a heavy-bottomed pan, melt 1 pound of butter over low heat, scooping away the foam at the top. Keep scooping until the oil is completely clear, taking care not to burn the solids that will inevitably fall to the bottom. It should take 20 to 30 minutes to finish separating a pound of butter. When the oil is mostly clear, strain the oil through cheesecloth into a clean, dry jar. Store at cool room temperature or in the refrigerator, if you prefer.

Use the ghee as you would any other oil. Indians often finish a dish with a drizzle or a scoop at the last minute.

The following dish, inspired by Indian cookbook author Raghavan Iyer, provides a simple way of using ghee. The idea is that spices blossom when sauteed in the rich-flavored ghee, which in turn seasons cooked foods.


Serves 4 as a main dish, or 6 as a side dish

In warm weather, try this cross between a salad and a braise at room temperature. Eat the peas-and-potatoes mixture with raita, a yogurt relish spiced with cool cucumbers and hot chiles. I like to scoop it up with an Indian flatbread like naan, or the whole-wheat roti.

Ghee-Spice Saute:

4 to 5 tablespoons ghee
1-1/2 teaspoons black or yellow mustard seeds
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
4 green or black cardamon pods, lightly crushed
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced


1 to 1-1/2 pounds small to medium unpeeled red-skin potatoes, boiled just until tender, cooled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pound sugar-snap peas, strings removed
Salt, to taste

In a 12-inch straight-sided saute pan, heat ghee over medium-high heat and add mustard seeds. Cover the pan and wait about 30 seconds, or until the seeds stop popping.

Still over medium-high heat, stir in the black pepper, cumin and cardamom. Cook another 5 to 10 seconds or until the cumin is fragrant. Immediately blend in the salt and onion. Cook, stirring, over medium-high heat, until the onion starts to color, add the garlic and saute another minute or two.

Add potatoes to the pan and cook, turning gently, for 2 minutes. Stir in peas, cooking only long enough to warm through. They should still be crisp. Serve warm or at room temperature with the Spiced Yogurt and Cucumber


Makes about 1-1/2 cups

1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups plain yogurt (preferably organic whole-milk yogurt)
1/4 medium red onion, cut in 1/4-inch dice
4 whole green onions, sliced thin
1/3 cup tightly packed, coarsely chopped fresh coriander leaves
2 to 3 fresh hot chiles, seeded and minced (jalapeno for medium heat, serrano for sharper heat and small chiles for real bite)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Spread diced cucumber on paper towel, sprinkle with salt, roll up and refrigerate for 30 minutes to 24 hours. This will remove excess moisture.

Combine cucumber and remaining ingredients in bowl, mixing well. Chill before serving. Can be made up to 2 days ahead, stored in refrigerator. Serve this cool yet hot relish with spicy dishes.

(Lynne Rossetto Kasper hosts "The Splendid Table," American Public Media's weekly national show for people who love to eat. She's the co-author of "The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper: Recipes, Stories and Opinions." Ask questions and find Lynne, recipes and station listings at or 800-537-5252.)

The Herald-Mail Articles