Clarified

For years I couldn’t explain why I wasn’t writing a cooking blog, but the question followed me. Food is perhaps my favorite subject, and coupling it with the kind of faux-studio photography I so often do and a combination of personal and technical writing sure seemed like the perfect recipe for my skill set. I used to mumble something about getting around to it eventually, but now it’s becoming pretty clear that I’ve veered in a different direction. With its three conflicting yet complementary categories—OfficeKitchen and Lounge—this blog asserts that what I’ve wanted all along was to contextualize food and cooking within a more abstract discourse on simplicity and purity and deliberateness and pragmatism in general. Plus, despite my love of a good meal and my respect for food writers like David Lebovitz, Mark Bittman and Luisa Weiss, I’m clearly more comfortable remaining on the fringes of the food movement (possibly for the same reasons that I most enjoy cooking and baking alone—that is, for people but not actually with them).

In other words, don’t expect recipes, even when my subject is food. Except, of course, when I’m compelled to make an exception.

Photo by the author, taken in daylight with a Leica X1. The half-liter storage jars are from Ikea.

Photo by the author, taken in daylight with a Leica X1. The half-liter storage jars are from Ikea.

Compelling me presently is the depth of my conviction that the single ingredient most uniformly missing from Western kitchens is also the one with the most potential for the home cook. I’m referring to clarified butter or, more specifically, ghee. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, the latter is actually the Sanskrit word for butter that has been not merely clarified (meaning heated and simmered until its water content has evaporated completely), but also afterwards cooked just a bit longer prior to straining in order to acquire the toasty beurre noisette aromas imparted by the separated milk solids undergoing a Maillard reaction at the bottom of the pot. The resulting “butter oil” is an eminently stable fat that can elevate a humble pan-fried dish to astonishing levels of sophistication. With a most appetizing pale golden color, it has an enticing aroma so delicious and pronounced that a teaspoon of it stirred into hot food will go further to flavor it than several spoons of plain butter. And while some might hesitate to replace refined oils with ghee because of the inevitable cholesterol, I’m personally an advocate of not hesitating (being both especially suspicious of refined oils and blessed with a spectacular HDL to LDL ratio).

So here’s what you do: take a few sticks of butter, place them in a non-leeching saucepan with a light-colored interior and turn the heat to medium-high. Soon, you will hear a sizzling noise that indicates the water is being cooked off. You’ll also notice that some of the milk solids are rising to the top and others are clinging to the pot. Keep listening. When the sizzling subsides, ten or fifteen minutes later, turn the heat to low and observe the color of the bits clinging to the bottom (hence my advice to use a vessel that enables you to see this clearly, like one lined with white enamel or made of stainless steel). When the solids turn amber or no darker than chestnut brown, strain the hot butterfat into a clean pot or glass beaker. Choose one with a spout, because after the ghee cools a bit and the dispersed milk solids settle, you’ll be straining and pouring again into your eventual container or containers. When you do, make sure to leave the last little bit of sediment in the jug. I refrigerate my ghee, because I like how non-dripping it is when it’s hard, but it’s stable enough that you don’t have to (even in summer; even in India a couple of thousand years ago).

Now, here’s a shockingly delicious thing you can do with those caramelized solids clinging to your pot, along with the contents of your strainer and the spoonful of cloudy ghee in your cooling jug: you can go right ahead and eat this, especially while it’s still hot. Try stirring it into a bowl of grain for a delicious simple dish of meaningful utility, or sprinkle a little salt on all these fried cheesy bits and eat them with a spoon or on top of toast. You can also use it in the next morning’s scrambled eggs or bestow it upon your dog. If, however, the solids go past caramelized to outright burned, your ghee is still salvageable—you’ll just have to toss the blackened bits and work a bit harder to clean the pot.

The intensity of flavor can be overpowering, and I rarely try using ghee in my baked goods because I find they wind up tasting of little but ghee. No, in my kitchen this is a vehicle for savory foods, ones that are European in origin but for whatever reason better suited to butter than olive oil. And of course it is the optimal cooking and finishing fat for Indian fare. In my experience, ghee is also the secret to perfect stovetop popcorn, pan-fried grilled cheese sandwiches and sautéed fish. In my family of two I probably melt down 500 grams of butter once every three to four weeks for our extensive, exultant applications.

It feels good to get all this off my chest. I’ve grown accustomed to saying it all over and over again, but it’ll be nice to just send the link from now on.