Clarified butter, also called drawn butter, is butter from which the water and milk solids have been removed.
Although butter primarily consists of the solidified fats of the milk and water, some of the proteins from the milk, whey and casein, are also present. These milk solids tend to easily brown or burn during cooking at relatively low temperature, making butter unsuitable for high heat frying, although “browned butter” has it’s own uses.
When butter is clarified, only the pure butter fat remains, and this fat can be used for frying or sauteing, or simply as the base of a dipping sauce. Clarified butter can also be stored longer than regular butter.
The type of clarified butter used in Indian cooking is called ghee. This is often described as being just the Indian word for clarified butter but in fact there is a slight difference between ghee and regular clarified butter, in that ghee is allowed to cook longer, allowing even more of the water to evaporate and the butter to slightly brown, or caramelize, taking on a more nutty flavor. It is also sometimes flavored with spices like turmeric.
In Middle Eastern cooking this clarified butter is called samna, sman, or smen. In French cuisine, it is called beurre noisette, meaning “hazelnut butter.” It is not necessary to allow the milk solids to caramelize in order to clarify butter. Whether you do this depends on how much flavor you want the butter itself to impart to the food you use it in. For a stand alone sauce, a beurre noisette will usually be desired.
We are usually told to avoid salted butter for clarifying. The foam that forms with salted butter can be a bit more difficult to skim off than unsalted butter, but if you are using a fine mesh strainer and cheesecloth, it will work fine. Salted butter is usually seen as lower quality and there may be a bit of salt left behind when clarifying it, but most of the salt will go with the milk solids. If you don’t believe me, clarify some salted butter and take a taste of the skimmed solids. It will taste almost of pure salt. Since the solids can be saved for use in other things, this would make them fairly useless, but aside from this, I can find no consistent instruction on why salted butter is to be avoided. Except for two reasons. One, unsalted butter is generally sweeter and fresher than salted butter, and, two, salted butter tends to burn a bit easier than unsalted. The idea that you cannot make good clarified butter from salted butter, however, is untrue in my experience. So, I’d go with the professional advice, and buy unsalted butter if your intention is to clarify it. But if you are in a pinch and all you have is salted butter, it is not at all impossible to use.
The way we do it at home will differ from the way it is done in professional kitchens, mostly owing to the large amounts that are prepared for restaurant use. Pros make big pots of clarified butter, skimming the solids off the top and allowing everything else to sink to the bottom. Then the desired amount can be carefully ladled out of the pot, as needed. It is hard to prepare very small amounts, however.
One stick of butter, should yield about 1/3 cup of clarified butter. If you are not using sticks, expect about a 1/4 reduction in volume. So, is you start with 16 ounces, for instance, you should end up with about 12 ounces of clarified butter.
Clarified Butter Recipe
Unsalted butter, cut into cubes.
1. Heat the unsalted butter in a heavy-duty saucepan over very low heat, until it’s melted. Let simmer gently until the foam rises to the top of the melted butter. The butter may splatter a bit, so be careful.
2. Once the butter stops spluttering, and no more foam seems to be rising to the surface, remove from heat and skim off the foam with a spoon. (It can be saved and added to soups, bread doughs, polenta, pilaf, or a bowl of warm oatmeal.)
Don’t worry about getting every last bit; you can remove the rest when straining it.
3. Line a mesh strainer with a few layers of cheesecloth or gauze (in France, I use étamine, which is cotton muslin) and set the strainer over a heatproof container.
4. Carefully pour the warm butter through the cheesecloth-lined strainer into the container, leaving behind any solids from the bottom of the pan.
Storage: Clarified butter will keep for 3 to 6 months in the refrigerator. Some say you can leave it at room temperature if the conditions are optimal, but I keep mine under refrigeration. It can also be frozen for a similar length of time. At room temperature, your clarified butter will congeal, as in the image above. When chilled, it becomes more solid, but you can scoop some out of your container easily enough when you need it.
Note: If you continue to cook the butter in step #2, it’ll turn a nutty-brown color and take on a pleasant aroma, which the French call beurre noisette, because of the nut-like smell and taste. You can use it right away as is, with or without the foam, and it’s wonderful drizzled over steamed vegetables.