When was the last time you cooked with clarified butter? Never? Then you should know that oil and butter (the regular kind) aren’t the only cooking fats out there. Yes, there are animal fats; bacon grease and duck fat in particular have a knack for making any food cooked with them just a bit more luxurious. But the often-overlooked clarified butter—comprised of pure butterfat—can make meals just as luxurious. And now that fat isn’t made out to be the demon that it once was (sugar is the real enemy, at least this week), it’s time you got to know all of the glorious varieties of cooking fat available for your use—clarified butter and its variations among them.
Clarified butter isn’t in the arsenal of most novice American home cooks, or even many of the more advanced ones. But, throughout the world, variations on clarified butter are staple ingredients used to cook everyday foods. Rice, sautéed vegetables, and bread are all accompanied by clarified butter in some form. At its most basic, clarified butter is butterfat separated from the water and milk solids. If you (rightly) believe that it’s important to know your fats, you should be aware that there are a few different kinds of clarified butter. Ghee, smen, and niter kibbeh are the primary types of clarified butter used throughout the world. They all boast high smoke points, long shelf lives, and rich, fatty flavor.
You may be most familiar with clarified butter as a pairing for lobster, crab legs, or other dippable morsel, but it can also be used as a cooking fat. In fact, its higher smoke point (485°F to butter’s 350°F) makes it less likely to burn, and ideal for cooking when you want the finished product to maintain its buttery flavor.
To make clarified butter, slowly heat regular butter until the butterfat separates from the water and milk solids. Then, strain the now-clarified butter (it will look much clearer), leaving the solids in the pan. Because clarified butter is made up of butterfat without the milk solids, it’s considered safer than regular butter for people who have trouble digesting dairy—which is one more point in its favor.
Ghee is a staple of Indian cooking. Rice, roti, and daal are all prepared with ghee, and historically, ghee’s importance to Indian culture has extended beyond the kitchen to include uses in medicine and in religious ceremonies. In the US, ghee has started to gain mainstream popularity, touted for being nearly lactose-free and somewhat paleo-friendly. Contemporary ghee has even gone artisanal and can be found in Himalayan pink salt, Madagascar vanilla bean, and white truffle salt varieties.
You can find ghee on store shelves, but it's not exactly cheap, so you might as well make it. Making ghee is almost the same as preparing clarified butter, with a few slight variations. First, traditional ghee necessitates butter made from buffalo or cow’s milk. The butter is then heated a bit longer than it is when making clarified butter. When the solids caramelize, turn brown, and sink to the bottom of the pan, the clarified butter is strained and jarred. The final product will have a deeper golden hue and nuttier flavor than clarified butter.
Niter kibbeh is an Ethiopian, spiced, clarified butter. The clarified butter is infused with spices, like fenugreek, turmeric, and cumin, to produce some serious flavor when used as a cooking fat or melted and spread on injera. Really, though, niter kibbeh can be made as simple or complicated as the home chef likes, with spices customized to simultaneously cook and flavor food.
To make niter kibbeh, place butter and spices into a saucepan and heat until the solids have sunk to the bottom. Discard the solids and strain the clarified butter until it is free of both solids and spices. After cooling a bit, store in a sealed jar in the refrigerator.
Smen is a salted, fermented cooking fat and spread made from clarified butter. Most common in in North African and Middle Eastern cooking, it has yet to achieve more global appeal in the manner of ghee. Although it’s widely produced in Morocco, the best way to incorporate it into your diet, as a cooking fat or funky spread, is the trusty DIY way.
To make smen, butter made from sheep, goat, or cow milk is heated and strained to become clarified butter. Then, the clarified butter is transferred to a ceramic jar and mixed with salt. Finally, the jar is sealed and set to age in a cool, dark place for periods of time ranging from a month to years, depending on how strong you want the smen to end up tasting. The fermentation process gives the smen a pungent cheese-like flavor, and like other clarified butters, it will stay funky (and usable) for a long, long time.