Julia Child famously said, “With enough butter, anything is good.” And we couldn’t agree more—this gift from the dairy gods make everything taste better. But once in a while, we encounter a recipe that calls for an unfamiliar, clarified, version of our favorite edible item. So, of course, we felt compelled to find out more. What is clarified butter, exactly? And, perhaps more importantly, can it compete with its more commonplace cousin in the kitchen? Read on for the full scoop.
What Is Clarified Butter?
Commonly referred to as liquid gold in the culinary world, clarified butter is undeniably delicious...but what sets this prized ingredient apart from the stick of dairy goodness you keep in the fridge? To understand the answer to this question, let’s start by taking a look at regular butter. The stuff you spread on your toast owes its milky color and solid, spreadable texture to a combination of milk solids, water and fat.
According to renowned chef Alton Brown, clarified butter is “simply butter that has been cooked to remove any water and solids.” In other words, once slowly melted and cooked, the milk solids and water in a stick of butter will separate from the fat. Once strained, the resulting liquid is clear, golden milk fat called clarified butter.
Clarified Butter vs. Ghee: What’s the Difference?
Perhaps you’ve heard of ghee before—a popular ingredient in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. This delicious cooking fat is commonly used in Ayurvedic recipes, curries and classic Indian dishes like butter chicken (or Murgh Makhani). It is also a form of clarified butter—but according to Brown, ghee is distinct from the generic variety of clarified butter in that it “is heated just a wee bit more until the milk solids are browned, giving the resulting fat a nutty flavor and aroma.” Bottom line: The main difference between ghee and clarified butter is that the former boasts a richer, more intense flavor that pairs well with generously spiced (though not necessarily spicy) savory dishes, but the basic concept and clarifying process are very similar.
How Is Clarified Butter Used?
Ever wondered why recipes for deep-fried foods never call for butter as the primary cooking fat? If you’ve ever cooked a pad of butter past the point of return, you already know why it isn’t preferred for high-heat cooking: Excess heat can scorch the milk solids, transforming a once salty and subtly sweet fat into an intense and unpleasantly bitter ingredient that can easily overpower a dish.
Enter clarified butter. Once the butter has been cooked and strained, it takes on some new characteristics that make it particularly useful in the kitchen—namely because the absence of milk solids means that clarified butter will not burn the way that regular butter does. Clarified butter boasts a smoke point of 486°F, while the flavor of the store-bought, creamy stuff can start to suffer at 325°F, depending on the quality (i.e., fat content) of any given stick. For this reason, clarified butter is the chef’s choice for many dishes. Per Alton Brown, you can “use clarified butter for frying and sautéing—it is excellent for cooking eggs, popping popcorn or cooking steak. Clarified butter also makes a mean hollandaise.”
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