Once, in a fit of industry, I set out to make the thickest whipped cream in the world, as if the density could somehow finally satisfy my childish desire for it—on ice cream, in hot chocolate, straight into the mouth from the nozzle. So I poured a carton of heavy cream into a bowl, stood on a stool, and blended and blended until the motor started to smoke. The blades could no longer cut through the solid hunk of dairy stuttering around in the mixer: I’d accidentally made butter. Though I was disappointed, the experiment was eye-opening. I now understood the link between milk and butter. It’s so easy to forget where our basics come from when they are dealt to us by the industrial food complex. A 2012 survey in the UK found that fewer than half the young adults polled knew that butter even came from a cow, and a third didn’t know that eggs come from hens.
Probably no one would think to say that butter comes from a star. But behold a jar of golden ghee, clarified butter, and it’s not such a stretch to think that you are gazing at a direct product of the sun. “Ghee is the essence of milk, which is the essence of grass, which is the essence of the sun when it gets impounded on earth in the form of green growing things,” says Matteo Girard Maxon, whose company, Ancient Organics, makes the most gorgeous ghee imaginable. “Similarly, a burning log can be viewed as the unwinding of stored solar energy. That essence of life is most clearly expressed in ghee.”
The first block of butter ever made was probably an accident like my own. I picture nomads packing up their yak milk in leather pouches and heading across the steppe on horseback, only to find their milk solidified by the natural churning of the gallop. Butter kept well in the Himalayas but spoiled in warm climates. Somewhere along the way, about 3,000 years ago, someone discovered that separating the milk solids from the butter could prevent spoilage.
The result of that separation, ghee, became a central part of ayurvedic medicine and is to this day considered by Hindus as one the highest forms of offering. On the banks of the Ganges you will find the Vedic myth of creation, in which Prajapati, the lord of procreation, bred his children by churning butter and dripping it over a flame, reenacted through the ritual of pouring ghee into fire. “Ghee is the supreme offering,” my own lama told me with confidence. I’ve seen him offer great gobs of it in fire pujas, and his attendants make butter lamps from pure ghee whenever possible. This mingling of ancient Hindu and Buddhist rituals reminds me of the followers of the Buddha who gathered at Nalanda University over time to passionately argue the finest points of philosophy with believers in atman.
Ritual and history aside, ghee is just plain delicious, lighting up almost any dish that calls for fat or oil. Beware of hydrogenated vegetable fat labeled as ghee, which has infiltrated the Indian market with its artery-hardening transfats. Pure ghee contains Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids; vitamins A, D, E, and K; and phenolic antioxidants. And though it is essentially butterfat, many doctors, like Andrew Weil, are now recommending it for good health.
Girard Maxon says there are many conditions that have to be met to make pure ghee. “When we are extracting the essence of something, we must touch the realm of the sattvic, or the most subtle, and so every aspect of the process must be performed properly,” he says.
The conditions for ghee are the materials, the moon phase, the place, the tools, and the cook. Using organic unsalted local butter is the best. Girard Maxon only prepares his ghee during the full and new moon phases. “The waxing moon increases the vitality of all living things, and we acknowledge the support nature provides during this period. Harmonizing ourselves with the cycles of the moon deepens the awareness of the process and in turn yields a superior product.” On those days, his staff chants mantras while preparing the ghee in a clean, well-lit space.
Melt two cups of unsalted butter in a heavy-bottomed pan over a medium flame. Stir with a wooden spoon and make sure it doesn’t spill over. When it starts to develop a foam, reduce the heat and let simmer. You can use the spoon to stir the surface, but try not to disturb the curds that are forming. The butter’s moisture is being cooked off, and you will hear a crackling sound; when it quiets down, in about 20 minutes, the ghee is ready. Be sure not to let it burn: the liquid should not be brown. Between the solids resting at the bottom of the pan and the foam at the top, you will have a clear golden liquid. Scrape off the foam and let the ghee cool, then strain it into a very clean glass jar, using a muslin cloth or a strainer. It’s important to keep only the clear liquid, or the ghee can spoil. Pure ghee can be kept at room temperature for about 3 months or refrigerated for longer. The separated milk solids are nutty and delicious and can be saved for baking flaky breads.
While you are preparing the ghee, consider Girard Maxon’s words:
Dharma is the essence of life. it is that which supports all things and is the truth of all things. Just like ghee is hidden in milk, so dharma is hidden in the midst of life. it is the Buddha who revealed this hidden truth. he did not invent it, he discovered it, revealed it. Ghee is like the dharma in that it must be considered and performed correctly for it to reveal itself.