I love our local farmers’ milk and buy a gallon every week. Non-homogenized, lightly pasteurized, sweet and creamy. I don’t actually drink milk much myself, but I appreciate the difference when I do– it is just delicious. I feel very good about supporting these local, real grass farmers and very, very good about pouring that milk over my kiddos’ homemade granola. Particularly on the days that they refuse to eat anything else.
I have tried to support those same farmers by buying their cream, butter and half and half too, but I find the high fat products get a ‘cowy’ flavor after a mere 4 days in the fridge that I simply cannot appreciate. Which is sad, because I burn through a lot of half and half in the course of my coffee addiction. The butter gets especially strong flavored. I can’t tell if it’s “culturing” our just plain going rancid. It starts out sweet and delicious but doesn’t even last out the week, which is really not acceptable behavior for butter.
Has anyone else had this problem? Am I just being too much of a weak American, afraid of a little flavor? I don’t know, but after a few pounds of not good tasting butter I gave up and went back to Organic Valley’s Pastured butter. This is not the worst compromise I make in my daily life, OV rates by far the best of the national brands with the independent organic watchdog Cornucopia Institute. Nevertheless the butter issue kept bugging me.
I suspected that part of the problem with the local butter was that they just weren’t getting enough of the buttermilk out. Residual liquid makes butter go bad much faster, and their butter did seem unusually wet– little drops spring out when you cut a piece off. The solution didn’t surface in my brain until I went on my cancer-inspired health kick a few months ago. I reread Paul Pitchford’s Healing With Whole Foods and was reminded why I have such high standards for oils and fats, and why I need to get back on the wagon.
I am no expert, and I don’t want to get to involved in the incredibly complex and contradictory world of nutrition. I feel that Pitchford’s very strong and lengthy opinion on oils is well worth a read and I highly recommend his book if you are interested. But the part that’s most simple to understand, what convinced me, is smoking oil. You know when you turn your pan on too high and it takes you longer to cut the onions than you thought it would and the oil smokes? Ahem. Well, maybe that doesn’t happen to you. Anyway, it’s not hard to imagine that smoking oil is bad. It smells bad and it tastes bad. Every oil has a different smoke point (here’s a chart on Wikipedia) and getting anywhere close to that temperature is highly destructive to the structure of the fat chains and turns otherwise healthy fats into evil free radicals which attack the very basis of health, including a direct correlation with cancer. Pitchford does hinge an awful lot on oil quality and appropriate use and makes an unusually big deal about it, but the idea that over-heated oils are unhealthy is perfectly standard modern nutrition.
At any rate, Pitchford’s recommended oils for moderately high heat use (like sauteing onions and other general skillet frying) are raw unrefined sesame oil (not the more commonly available toasted kind), coconut oil and ghee.
Finally the cogs met in my brain, and I made my first ever batch of ghee– the Indian name for clarified butter. Ghee is pure milk fat, with all the residual liquid boiled off and the milk solids strained out. Because it is pure fat it lasts much, much longer than plain butter and is probably the only way to keep butter at all without refrigeration in equatorial regions like India. Plain butter burns at a pretty low temperature, but ghee can get quite hot before it smokes. You still can’t leave the pan on high while you cut up the onion, but making pancakes is a dramatically less smoky experience.
In addition to being sanctioned by both traditional and modern nutritional knowledge, butter can be sourced locally in most places, making ghee a very sustainable way to fry.
Now, what if you are put off by the same thing that put me off for so many years– fear of waste? One pound of butter yields about 3/4 of a pound of ghee, it’s true. As you cook the butter, you skim off the foam that rises and then eventually pour the finished ghee off of the bottom layer of sediment. But as soon as I made my first batch I realized the implicit answer to the waste question. Just don’t toss the foam and weird milk solid sediment! Stir it into a pot of mashed potatoes, soup or bread dough. No problem.
So, are you ready? Making ghee is very easy. Start by melting a pound of your farmer’s market butter over low heat.
Once it’s all melted, turn the heat up to medium-low. The butter should bubble actively, but not ferociously. The foam will start to rise right away, but you only need skim it off once every 10 minutes or so. Maybe even less, I’m still experimenting. Keep a jar next to the pot for the skimmed foam.
You can leave it pretty unattended between skims, but when it starts to look like this (below) you’ll need to stay in the room or you might overdo it like I did the first time and make “browned butter” ghee. This is not the worst way to screw up, but it doesn’t last as long, so I recommend paying close attention towards the end. **CAUTION: Occasionally when you stir the cooking butter it will spit hot fat at you. Keep the kids back from the stove while you are tending your ghee, and be careful with your stirs.
When the bubbling changes from a boiling sort of sound to a frying sort of sound, your ghee is done. If you want it to last a really long time (months) pour it through a paper towel into two half pint jars. If you only need it to last a few weeks, you can just pour it straight in so long as you are careful to keep the solids in the pot. I recommend using the more perishable foam and solids up right away for dinner rather than putting them into a jar that might get pushed to the back of the fridge and forgotten.
As your ghee cools it will solidify, more or less depending on room temperature, at 70-80 F my ghee stays pretty soft. I put one jar in the fridge and keep the other by the stove next to my cast iron skillet brush (a one-inch wide natural bristle paint brush from the hardware store). Then I can just brush ghee into my pan when I need it. A spoon would work better if your house is cooler.
Now it will be easy to fry local!