September 30, 2009

Full of Ghee! And, is Olive Oil Toxic when used for Cooking? ~ A. Sheridan

Ghee Whiz!

On Ghee, and Olive Oil.

I’ve recently heard some buzz about the harmful effects of olive oil when used in cooking over high heat. This inspired me to do some online research, and also effectively sparked my fascination with ghee (or clarified butter).

I’m not a nutritionist, or a professional cook. I’m just a person who enjoys cooking and eating healthy food. And like many others, I am continuously overwhelmed by the constant stream of discovery that almost everything we eat, cook with and do in our daily lives will give us cancer or damage our bodies in some way.

It’s a never-ending process of learning and evolving, becoming obsessed with the newest health craze, and then swearing it off altogether when it turns out to be bad for you.

I’ve used ghee, homemade and store-bought, for special recipes—but I generally stick with extra virgin olive oil as my stand-by in the kitchen. After several people mentioned to me that it is newly discovered to be “toxic” when cooked, I set off to find out why.

After days of research, all I really found were responses from nutritionists and doctors re-assuring me that I’m not going to get cancer from my daily use of olive oil in cooking. The only evidence I found of it being harmful were a couple of articles saying that when it is cooked at high heat (over 410 degrees F, or when it reaches its smoking point), the chemical structure is disturbed and it gives off free radicals. But, as far as the everyday cooking that I do (sautée, simmer sauces, etc.), I haven’t found anything that would convince me that I’m doing myself, or my dinner guests, any harm.

During all my fussing over whether to continue cooking with olive oil, I decided to make a batch of ghee, to tide me over. Store-bought is fine, but I suggest making your own. It is really easy, less expensive, and you can choose the quality of butter you’d like to use. Also, you can make it in big batches, and it will keep for months. This is because the process of clarifying the butter means that you are removing the milk solids, which is the part susceptible to spoiling.

Many online sources will tell you ghee will last for months unrefrigerated. This is only the case if your ghee is 100% pure, meaning that all of the milk solids have been removed. Unless you feel totally confident that you’ve made perfectly clean ghee, I would suggest refrigerating it, to avoid the risk of it turning rancid.

The benefit of using ghee, over olive oil, is that it has a very high smoking point (higher than extra virgin olive oil), which makes it a “stable” cooking oil. This just means that the temperatures used in most home-cooking will not be high enough to damage the chemical structure of ghee and make it dangerous for consumption. Heat from cooking will not burn it, or disrupt the molecules and generate free radicals.

Enough talk! Let’s make ghee.

It really makes a difference to use good quality butter. I used organic butter from a small, vegetarian dairy farm for this batch.

Basically, all you are trying to do is heat the butter to a mellow boil, so that the milk solids separate, leaving a clear oil. The solids will act in two ways. Some will sink to the bottom of the pot, and some will float to the surface. All of the milk solids need to be discarded in order to achieve a perfectly clear batch of ghee. The milk solids burn easily, so the only tricky part is to keep the solids that separate and sink to the bottom of the pot from burning. Many methods tell you not to disturb the solids by stirring the boiling butter.

However, I found the best way to get a super clean batch of ghee, without any burning, is to do the opposite and scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. You will be able to gently skim the white milk solids from the surface of the mixture, and any bits left floating around that you are not able to remove with a spoon, will be extracted in the final process, which is the straining.

From the point that the butter comes to a boil, the entire process should take about 30 minutes. During this time, the butter will be at a constant, low boil, and you will be skimming the white solids off the surface as they begin to separate. Every few minutes, scrape the bottom so you don’t get any burning, then allow it to continue boiling until more solids appear at the surface. Repeat this process until you are left with a crystal clear, light yellow oil. If the ghee is too dark, that probably means you have some burning, which will destroy the flavor of the entire batch.

Be careful not to let those solids at the bottom of the pot burn!

When the butter looks clear (after you’ve removed as much milk solids as you can), it is time to strain. You’ll just need a mesh strainer, and a big bowl. You can, if you must, use paper towels to line the strainer, but I would really recommend buying some cheesecloth for this. You can get it at any good grocer, and it will ensure you end up with a clean batch of ghee. I cut the cloth up into pieces that are a bit bigger than the strainer, and line it with 3 or 4 layers of cloth. Then very slowly pour your ghee through the strainer, and the cheesecloth will catch the remainder of the milk solid bits that are floating around. You may want to repeat the straining once more, just to make sure it’s clean.

And there you have it! You can store your ghee in a clean mason jar, and keep it in your pantry or refrigerator. You can use ghee anywhere you would use butter or oil.

For more on the author, Azita Sheridan, please visit her website.

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