Butter: browned, clarified, and ghee

This one is for my dad, who makes fun of me for carrying McGee with me whenever I travel and then peppers me with food science questions that I need to look up (immediately) in my reference book of choice. My favorite from my trip home in August revolved around clarified butter and ghee, partly because the science is pretty cool and partly because, well, butter. So here you go, dad, way more than you asked for and it’s all thanks to McGee.

Think about melting a stick of butter. You get some bubbling that resolves into a layer of foam on the surface and a puddle of white that settles to the bottom. And if you forget the melting butter on the stove, your house passes through a wonderful sweet, nutty smell on its way to scorched. We’ve all been there, right?

Butter: browned, clarified, and ghee | fchem101.com

Left to right: ghee, browned butter, and clarified butter

That’s really all we need to know to understand the various butter modifications we’re doing here. Everything you see is a product of the butter separating as it melts: the water boils out (the bubbles), whey proteins gather on the top (the foam), and casein proteins sink to the bottom (the white puddle). We’re left with a pure butterfat sandwich. Mmm…

From here, we have a couple of options. If we continue to heat the butter, the casein proteins on the butter turn brown as they make friends with the milk sugars and become deliciously more than the sum of their parts. This is browning; we’ve talked about it before because it’s amazing. We brown the milk solids to make browned butter and ghee.

If we want to make the butter more amenable to high heat, say for frying, we can easily skim off the milk solids on top and bottom. The result has the taste of butter but can handle temperatures up to 400o F, while the milk solids in regular butter brown and then burn around 250o F. We remove the milk solids to make clarified butter and ghee.

Butter: browned, clarified, and ghee | fchem101.com

All of these variations on butter are super simple and help take whatever you’re making to the next level. For both flavor and function, a quick melt can make a big difference. Check back soon for recipes using all of these modifications!

Also I made you a table because this is how my brain works.

Browned butterYesNo
Clarified butterNoYes

To make any of these: throw a stick of butter in a small pot over medium heat. When it is fully melted and the bubbling stops, the roads diverge.

For clarified butter: turn off the heat. Use a spatula or another wide, flat utensil to carefully remove the foam from the top. Line a sieve with cheese cloth and pour the butter through, stopping when you see the color change from yellow to white.

For browned butter: continue to heat as the milk solids brown. When they darken and start to smell wonderful, turn off the heat.

For ghee: continue to heat the butter until the milk solids are brown and fragrant. Skim the foam off the top and strain the mixture asfor clarified butter. The cloth will catch most of the browned solids, but you will get a purer product if you stop pouring when most of the butter has gone through.

Science in this is from, of course, McGee’s On Food and Cooking.