Clarified Butter

Clarified butter is what you get when you heat butter to the point that the milk proteins curdle and settle out, the minerals and sugars clump and rise to the top, and much of the water boils away. What you’re left with is nearly pure butterfat.

What’s the advantage of that? Well, once all that’s done butter starts to behave a lot more like oil, and that’s a handy thing when you want the flavor of butter but also want to be able to subject it to high heat. If for instance you want to sauté with it or even fry in it. For the clarifying process has the effect of raising the smoke point of butter from around 325 degrees Fahrenheit to around 425 degrees Fahrenheit, which is pretty darn amazing.

Odds are you’ve clarified butter yourself at one point or another, even if you weren’t intending to do it. Maybe you melted several sticks to make a filo pastry of some sort. As you worked you noticed the foam on the top of the butter and the film on the bottom of the pan. Later when you returned to wash up, you noticed that the butter had remained a semi-liquid once it had cooled. Even when refrigerated it never returned to its former firm state.

What you had there was ghee. If you remember from some of the earlier posts, butter is an emulsion: tiny droplets of water inside a matrix of butterfat crystals, free liquid butterfat and some protein-encased butterfat blobs that managed to survive the butter making process intact. Heat wrecks that emulsion, and more that that it curdles those protein coats, breaking the butterfat globules and freeing the butterfat inside. The result is a mass of nothing but free fat which can never go back to the emulsion from whence it came.

Is clarified butter useful in baking? It certainly can be, especially in cake batters (génoise, madeleines) where you want the moist texture that oil provides without completely sacrificing the flavor you get from butter. I say “completely” because much of the flavor of butter comes from the sugars and minerals you lose in the clarifying process. And if it this moment you happen to be asking yourself: does this mean I shouldn’t clarify expensive butter? The answer is an unequivocal “yes.”

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28 Responses to Clarified Butter

  1. Linda says:

    I was surprised when I talked to a guy who had to eat dairy free. He said they used ghee. I guess I’d never realized before how the process would remove the milk solids to allow someone eating dairy-free due to health reasons to eat butter. I do like to use it when doing some higher heat things like caramelizing a grilled cheese sandwich on the outside (when I indulge in that!) and helping to brown foods but it doesn’t carry the flavor, as you said. Nice clarification (was that a bad pun?) about ghee. Thanks!

    • joepastry says:

      Bu-dum bum. I guess I never knew ghee counted as “dairy-free” either. Weird.

      Thanks for that!

      - Joe

      • Stefanie says:

        My eight-year-old daughter is “allergic to dairy” which means she gets hives or worse if she eats milk protein. We just tried clarified butter and she had no reaction.

  2. Jim says:

    Any ghee or clarified butter I’ve seen at the store is very solid at refrigerator temperatures. Is there something different in how you’re making it when you say it does not solidify or is that just a matter of not having all the water out? Normally when I make it, I just make enough to use so I can’t say whether it would fully solidify.

    • joepastry says:

      Hey Jim!

      Different butters contain different mixes of fats and the kind you see may just be normally firm at room temperature. In my experience ghee is semi-firm, but it’s all going to vary according to the cows and what they’re eating.

      - Joe

    • Catherine says:

      I’m pretty sure the way butterfat is cooled when it is processed also affects how the crystal structure shapes up. If I remember what I read correctly, dairies regulate cooling to compensate for annual changes in the butterfat composition.

      • joepastry says:

        Indeed that’s true. I’d love to see how it’s done some time, being naturally curious!

        - Joe

  3. Philip Scott Thomas says:

    Joe –

    Thank you very much for this series on fats. I was thinking before Christmas about asking you for just this very thing.

    A couple of questions regarding butter/clarified butter:

    First, it has been very common amongst British TV cooks to use both unclarified butter and oil. They tell us that the addition of oil raises the smoking point of the butter. But I thought it was the burning of the milk solids that was the problem. I cannot see how the addition of oil changes that. I would have thought that the milk proteins burn at the temperature they burn at, regardless of the medium.

    Second, if the flavour of butter is in the minerals and sugars that form the ‘scum’ on the top of melted butter, can we have the best of both worlds by not skimming off the scum?

    • joepastry says:

      Hi Phillip!

      Very glad this has been helpful for you. I’m also glad you brought up the point about the butter/oil combo as it’s one of the biggest myths spread by TV cooks. Combining the two in no way reduces the smoke point of the butter, for as you rightly point out it’s the milk solids that burn and even though there are fewer of them when you dilute them with oil, they still burn.

      As for the scum on top, I’ve never considered it as a potential flavoring, though is suspect it’s not terribly useful having been exposed to high sustained heat, which has a way of evaporating and/or destroying flavor- and aroma-creating compounds. But I’ve never really tried it. Might be worth a shot!

      Thanks for the excellent comment,

      - Joe

  4. Bronwyn says:

    The scum on top is delicious. Salty. Just skim it off before it burns and save it.

    • joepastry says:

      Reader Beenz also says it’s a great additive in bread doughs. Who knew?

      - Joe

      • Sandi says:

        I skim it, but the kitchen fairy licks the spoon. What? I’m going to see if s/he’ll let me save it and use it in some cornbread next time. Do you think the length of time you could keep the ghee in the fridge would be shortened by the process vs regular butter? I would like to clarify say a pound for a 9×13″ pan of cornbread and then use the ghee in cooking over a month or two. I don’t make corn bread often, because obviously I have ‘issues’, lol. (signed The Cornbread Fanatic)

        • joepastry says:

          Hey Sandi!

          It shouldn’t spoil, you’ll just want to keep it sealed as tightly as possibly to prevent it from picking up off flavors in the fridge.

          - Joe

  5. Dani says:

    Hi Joe
    I wasn’t sure if you were going to look at clarified butter as a separate fat and almost thought not when you posted about oil, but thank you for coming back to it. I think it posesses a great flavoring potential when used in pastry. When I don’t have time to make anything pastry, I spread some on a rosy slice of toast and almost manage to make do with a craving until I have the time to bake. But there is one thing I have been wondering about for a while now- the graininess of the resolidified butterfat. It is the only flaw that brown butter has, if you can even call it a flaw, and sometimes I wonder if there isn’t some possible way to control that or post-perfect it, so to speak. I know the emulsion is gone once it is melted, but what about the size of the crystals themselves. I think about size of sugar crystals in different types of crystalized honey, and then there is “creamed honey”, which they reseed in order to get that fine scale creaminess of the sugars. I have also heard Indian cooks talk about high quality ghee being smooth and fine. Do you happen to have any wisdom on the subject? If somebody knows it has to be you.

    • joepastry says:

      I appreciate your confidence, Dani, but I’m not sure I can help! The manufacture of butter is rather secretive, sort of like flour milling. However I do know that butters can get greasy if the crystallization isn’t handled properly, and it all has to do with temperature. So, you may wish to experiment with temperature a little in the cooling process. Try the counter, try the fridge, maybe even try the freezer and see if you notice any difference in the crystal size. That’s about the best I can do!

      Cheers,

      - Joe

      • Dani says:

        Thank you for the pointer. I knew temperature figures in the equation, wasn’t sure about agitation…I will experiment and see what happens. May take me a while before I am able to do it, but will let you know. I have noticed that lard is quite smoother, especially in the stage when it first begins to turn white from transparent, whereas clarified butter forms grains at the first signs of opacity ,even when it is still quite liquid.

  6. beenz says:

    Clarified butter is not “ghee” as Indians use it. In ghee the milk solids are allowed to brown and impart a caramelised flavour to the butter. It is much more fragrant than clarified butter and definitely more flavourful. Also I find using cheap butter for ghee stinks up my kitchen for the rest of the day. The actual recipe for ghee can be found on most websites on Indian cooking. Please try it. You will be amazed at the taste. Also the remaining solids are usually added to doughs when making Indian flatbreads to both tenderise and flavour the bread.

    • joepastry says:

      I stand corrected! Thanks very much, Beenz, I appreciate the very interesting information, I’m sure other readers will too.

      - Joe

  7. Frankly says:

    A couple of notes:
    I save that foam & added it to pasta dough when I plan on using it for ravioli or the like. It adds a nice flavor.

    You may read that the French use clarified butter when making Hollandaise. I don’t know if they do or not but I tried it and don’t like it. It had a slightly fake taste and lacked some of the creaminess I want. YMMV but thats my take anyway

    • joepastry says:

      I have heard that, Frankly, interesting you should have some experience with that. I always heard it made a foolproof emulsion. Being a fool that’s appealing. Thanks for the information.

      - Joe

      • Frankly says:

        Maybe it does help the emulsion. It did come together nicely but I didn’t think it was as good.

        I was told the foam is whey and that adding it to pasta makes it more tender. I think that works but only really like the results for large pieces like ravioli.

  8. Chuck says:

    Black Butter tomorrow?? :C)

    • joepastry says:

      The fruit spread you mean? Actually I think I’m done with fats…unless anyone else has any wise guy ideas! ;)

  9. Malini says:

    oooooh! I love this stuff. Can bathe in it…Might be the reason for my slightly rounded figure (understatement of the year)!

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