What are the advantages and disadvantages of butter and ghee when it comes to cooking?

Categories: Articles, Cooking tips, Food Education, Western Medicine

From a nutritional standpoint, both butter and ghee are basically made from the fats of whole milk. Although butter in the United States is almost always made from cow’s milk, the ghee used for cooking in India is often made from buffalo milk. Both ghee and butter are usually 80% milk fat or greater in terms of their composition, and about two-thirds of that fat is saturated fat.

How Butter Is Made

Butter is made by separating cream from milk. Since the fat-based cream portion of the milk is lighter than the water and milk solids portion, the cream in fresh milk will eventually rise to the top of the milk over time if the milk is simply left standing. However, a centrifuge that very forcefully spins can be used to speed up this process. (When milk is centrifuged, the lighter cream will stay closer to the center and the heavier water and solid portions will fly to the outside of the centrifuge.) When cream has been separated from milk, it can be churned until it reaches a semi-solid state. That product is what we call butter.

Clarified Butter and Ghee

Clarified butter is butter that has been melted over low heat and allowed to bubble and simmer until most of the water has been evaporated. Clarified butter is also sometimes called drawn butter. Ghee is essentially clarified butter, although traditional ghee-making processes (originating in India, where ghee is very commonly used in cooking) place a focus on exact steps and specific qualities of the clarified butter. The cooking process is usually extended for a longer period of time with ghee, eliminating more of the moisture and also causing the milk solids to caramelize for eventual removal from the ghee through strainers. The highest-quality ghee is obtained when the long-simmered butter is allowed to cool and only the top-most layer is skimmed off. (That layer becomes the ghee that is considered top-quality and used in cooking.)

Health Consequences of Ghee and Butter

Research on ghee and health is limited, but fairly consistent. When ghee is consumed at levels above 10% total calories, it can increase risk of cardiovascular disease. (For a person consuming 1,800 calories per day, 10% of those calories would be 180 calories, or about 20 grams of fat, which equals approximately 2 tablespoons of ghee.) At levels under 10% of total calories, however, ghee appears to help lower cardiovascular risks, especially when other fats consumed during the day are exclusively from plants or plant oils.

Butter, like ghee, can increase risk of cardiovascular disease when consumed in excessive amounts. One research study has shown that 3 tablespoons of butter per day over 4 weeks can increase total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol. For this reason, if you are going to cook with butter, you will want to keep the amount at a moderate level of no more than 1-2 tablespoons.

The benefits of butter at moderate levels do not yet have the same level of research backing as ghee. However, there is increasing research interest in butter as having some unique potential benefits of its own, particularly in relationship to its vitamin K and vitamin D content. This content may vary, however, depending on the diet and living circumstances of the dairy cow. (We look forward to new research in this area, especially with respect to vitamin K2.)

Types of Fats in Ghee and Butter

When comparing ghee to butter in terms of health, one reason for the more favorable past research record of ghee versus butter might be the increased amount of medium- and short-chain fatty acids in ghee. Butter contains about 12-15% of these medium-chain and short-chain fats, whereas ghee contains about 25%. (Our bodies metabolize medium-chain and short-chain fats differently than long-chain ones, and medium- and short-chain ones are not associated with cardiovascular problems in the same way as the long-chain ones are.)

Ghee Has a Higher Smoke Point than Butter

Ghee tends to have a higher smoke point than butter. For butter, smoke point is typically reached between 325-375 F (163-191 C). Some clarified butters also fall into this general range, but ghee usually has a higher smoke point, between 400-500 F (204-260 C). This higher smoke point can be an advantage when cooking at high heat since smoke point is that moment when heat damage to some of the components in a fat or oil is sufficient to become visible in the form of smoke. When it comes to our health, heating above smoke point is not a good idea with any oil or fat.

Cooking Recommendations

For persons choosing to cook in fat at higher heats in the 400-500 F (204-260 C) range, ghee makes sense to us, provided that it’s used in moderation (no more than 1-2 tablespoons per day). Even for a person deciding to cook in fat, however, the use of butter at higher heats does not make sense to us due to its lower smoke point (325-375 F/163-191 C).

The use of butter and ghee at lower heats (300-375 F/163-191 C) may be acceptable, provided once again that both of these animal fats are used in moderation. Whether there are distinct advantages to the use of butter at lower heats versus plant oils is not clear to us from the existing research. In general, however, we do not like the idea of heating plant oils due to the delicate nature of their polyunsaturated fats and phytonutrients. Since butter has far fewer polyunsaturates than plant oils, it might provide a lower heat cooking alternative for this reason. However, the phytonutrient and vitamin content of butter would still be susceptible to heat damage, and since we have not yet seen research to confirm the health benefits of butter in lower heat cooking, we cannot recommend this practice without the benefit of more research. On our website, we offer a method of healthy sauteing that requires no fat or oil of any kind. You can visit the Cooking Healthy section of our website to learn more about this method.

References

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  • Kumar MV, Sambaiah K, Lokesh BR. Hypocholesterolemic effect of anhydrous milk fat ghee is mediated by increasing the secretion of biliary lipids. J Nutr Biochem 2000;11(2):69-75. 2000.
  • Nestel PJ, Chronopulos A, Cehun M. Dairy fat in cheese raises LDL cholesterol less than that in butter in mildly hypercholesterolaemic subjects. Eur J Clin Nutr 2005 Sep;59(9):1059-63. 2005.
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  • Trevisan M, Krogh V, Freudenheim J, et al. Consumption of olive oil, butter, and vegetable oils and coronary heart disease risk factors. The Research Group ATS-RF2 of the Italian National Research Council. JAMA 1990, Vol. 263 No. 5: 688 – 692. 1990.
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