Ghee is Life


This morning I happened to visit the Sampradaya Sun web page. Rocan Prabhu has been doing a series entitled ” A journey through India: border to border, bhoga to prasadam” and in the last week has done a two part article on ‘Ghee’. We have reprinted both the first and second part here.

Prasadam – Ghee
by Sun Staff

…the Mother of all ingredients is milk, and all its glorious byproducts. Today we’ll begin an exploration of ghee, which is one of the final foodstuffs derived from processing milk. Cow’s milk is said to possess the essential sap of all plants, and ghee is a most valued derivation of that nutritious stuff. The clear golden liquid known as ghee is the crown jewel of oils, and is one of Srimati Radharani’s most favored ingredients.

The word ghee comes from the Sanskrit ghrta [ghrit], or “sprinkled”. Aayurghritam means ‘ghee is life’, and this is reflected in the many sacred ways the stuff is used in devotional practice, from cooking to feeding the sacred fire, or performing abhisheka with panchamrta. Use of ghee as a substance to anoint the Deities is mentioned in Yajurveda, and the Rgveda has many references to butter and ghee.

Lord Prajapati, the primordial lord of the creatures and father of the seventh lila-avatar incarnation, Yajna, first created ghee by rubbing his hands together, churning butter and producing ghee that was poured onto the sacred fire to engender his progeny. One of the hymns in Rgveda is sung in praise of ghee:

This is the secret name of Butter:
“Tongue of the gods,” “navel of immortality.”
We will proclaim the name of Butter;
We will sustain it in this sacrifice by bowing low.
These waves of Butter flow like gazelles before the hunter…
Streams of Butter caress the burning wood.
Agni, the fire, loves them and is sa0tisfied.
Rgveda describes ghee/butter in relation to the purusha:

“It was Purusa, born in the beginning, which they sprinkled on the sacred grass as a sacrifice. With him the gods sacrificed the demi-gods and the seers.

From that sacrifice completely offered, the clotted butter was brought together. It made the beasts of the air, the forest and the village.

From that sacrifice completely offered, the mantras [Rgveda] and the songs [Samaveda] were born. The meters were born from it. The sacrificial formulae [Yajurveda] were born from it.”

Not surprisingly, modern history tells a different story about the original creation of ghee, not taking into account the ancient Vedic history, which is Absolute. In addition, many early academic references to butter would be more accurately translated as ghee.

Modern historians point to an ancient trade manuscript, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, which indicates that ghee was a trading commodity as early as the 1st century A.D. Of course, Sri Krsna was chasing after Mother Yasoda’s butter (what to speak of the butter of neighboring households) during Hs Vrindavan lila pastimes. Krsna was gleefully eating butter, throwing it at Balarama, and feeding it to the monkeys, and Yasoda Ma was reducing the butter to golden ghee, making wondrous preparations to offer Krsna. Sadly, consumers of modern history are left with the dry tale that butter was first created accidentally, when milk was being transported in skin bags and got churned while traveling over rough terrain. Just see how glorious Krsna Conscious reality is compared to mundane notions.

Ghee is known by many other names around the world. In Hindi it is ghi; in Bengali and Urdu, ghi ; in Nepali it’s ghyu; in Punjabi, ghyo; in Marathi and Konkani it’s tup; in Kannada, tuppa; in Tamil and Malayalam it’s ney; and in Telugu it’s neyyi.

Pure ghee is made by simmering butter churned from the cream portion of cow’s milk. The butter is cooked over a slow fire until the impurities rise to the top and the whey separates, dropping to the bottom. Sandwiched between these two layers is a depth of pure, golden liquid that is carefully separated out.

The quality of ghee is dependent on many things, first and foremost, the quality of life of the cow. Cows treated properly as the sacred Mother are invited to pasture on good quality grasses which produce the richest milk. The richest cream separated from the milk is churned into butter, and separated out from the concentrated butter fats are the liquids, known as buttermilk and skim milk. It takes about five gallons of whole milk to produce just two pounds of butter.

In India and many other countries, ghee is also produced from the milk of other animals, including buffalo, yaks, goats and sheep. Without questions, cow’s milk is far superior to all of these. High quality cow milk ghee can be identified by its color, flavor, and aroma, among other qualities. Lower quality ghees are not a deep golden, but vary from shades of yellow to nearly white. Only pure cows milk ghee is bona fide for use in Deity worship or fire yajna.

Pure cow milk ghee is actually the most potent form of the milk, having been transformed by heat. In Ayurveda it is considered to be sweet in taste, cold in nature, with a sweet aftertaste (vipaka). Buffalo milk ghee is colder in nature, oilier and heavier than cow ghee, and eating it tends to make one lethargic. But as any Krsna Prasadam aficionado knows, high quality bhoga cooked in ghee, offered with love and devotion, results in foodstuffs that leave an amazingly light ‘footprint’. Even the richest ghee-laden and ghee-fried foods can be eaten in great quantities, and do not ruin one’s energy for the remainder of the day, or the next, as feast preparations cooked in lesser oils are likely to do.


Prasadam – Ghee, Part Two
by Sun Staff

There are significant differences in the way ghee is produced in India, compared to the West. In the West, the artisan process is to use fresh, whole cow’s milk, let the cream rise to the top, then churn the heavy cream to butter, and finally slow cook the butter to separate the milk solids and whey from the liquid golden ghee. Unfortunately in the West today, few creameries make their butter by actually churning the cream. Instead, the milk is extruded through a fine screen. The larger fat molecules are captured, and the rest runs off as the commercial equivalent of buttermilk.

The problem with this process is that without churning, the all-important transformative energy is eliminated. The agni quality that was embodied in Lord Prajapati’s churning of butter into sacrificial ghee is absent. In India, butter is traditionally made by hand-churning and hand-working the butter, which imparts a quality much improved over the commercial process due the churning motion. While the differences are subtle, they are among the qualities inherent in sattvic practice.

Ghee-making in the West is sometimes confused with making clarified butter, which is not really ghee at all. Clarified butter is butter that is boiled to eliminate the moisture content, leaving it with a frothy foam on top of the yellow liquefied butter. When making ghee, many Western cooks simply place blocks of unsalted butter in a pan on very low heat, removing the ghee as soon as it has separated, and allowing little carmelization to occur. Indian cooks often encourage carmelization on the bottom of the ghee pot, because it sweetens the entire ghee batch in a lovely way.

In India, ghee making not only ends differently – it begins differently. The whole milk is typically not allowed to sit until the cream rises. Instead, the milk is boiled to eliminate bacteria, then cooled. Next the milk is cultured with yoghurt and allowed to rest, covered, for several hours or overnight, slightly souring the milk. Next morning, a thick layer of yoghurt and cream is removed from the top. The curd is then hand-beaten, and after about 30 minutes of churning, a frothy layer of butter begins to take shape in the bowl.

Gathering together the fresh made butter, it is next placed in a heavy kadai and melted over a medium-low fire. The brown, gritty stuff that layers the bottom of the pan is saved after the golden ghee is poured off, and the leavings are then mixed with sugar as a treat for children, or else it’s thrown into the dal pot, or mixed into the day’s sabji.

Ghee is best made in a stainless steel pot, and aluminum pots should always be avoided, as they leech toxins into the food. The heavier the pot, the more effectively heat will be distributed across the bottom. Whenever possible, make arrangements to cook your ghee over fire, rather than electrical heat. Again, the sattvic qualifies will be much improved this way.

Never stir the pot when you’re making ghee, at any point during the process, as it’s important to let the heat do the job of separating out all the impurities and milk solids, so you can drain off only the pure liquid oil.

Depending on the quality of the butter being used, the milk solids and impurities will rise to the top and drop to the bottom in somewhat different consistencies. If you use salted butter, most of the salt will get thrown off as impurities, in a brown crust that forms on the surface, although some of the salt will remain. Unsalted butter is far preferable to use for ghee.

On the bottom of the pan a whitish liquid forms which is technically ‘precipitated protein’, commonly referred to as whey or curd. The whey still contains 50 percent or more butterfat, which makes it a wonderful ingredient on its own. The whey can be frozen for later use, or immediately cooked into sabjis or dals. One of the best uses for whey is to add it to the water when boiling peeled potatoes. The potatoes hold a much firmer texture after cooking, which makes them perfect for stuffing. Below is our recipe for Stuffed New Potatoes in Saffron Cream, which puts to excellent use the whey leftover from ghee making.

Depending on the size of the pot and temperature, ghee will be done anywhere from a few to several hours. Undercooking it means that there will still be too much moisture in the ghee, and this causes it to splatter when frying, and lessens the shelf life. Over-cooked ghee gets a nutty taste which many find pleasant, although the purest ghee flavor is desirable for many recipes.

Making Ghee in the Oven

When cooking over open fire isn’t possible, our next preferred method of ghee-making is to cook it overnight in the oven. Placing the desired quantity of butter in an uncovered stainless steel pot or pan, leaving it in the oven overnight at about 170 degrees F. In the morning, the end product will be three distinct layers of semi-solids and liquids. The top crust will contain all the butter impurities, the whey collects at the bottom, and the golden oil is between.

In the morning, remove the pot from oven and let it sit for 10 minutes, so the crust hardens even more. This makes it easier to skim off the crust, which you can set aside for later use. These milk/salt solids are wonderful cooked into sabjis and vegetable dishes. Skim the crust off carefully with a spatula or flat utensil, gently getting up under the crust and lifting it off in chunks. Remove as much as possible, on top and around the edges.

Next, pour off or ladle off as much of the golden ghee as possible without mixing in any of the whey. This takes a little practice. The white liquid will want to bubble up into your ghee, as hey don’t naturally mix (like oil and water). When you get whey in with the ghee, then heat the ghee on a hot fire, the whey will ‘pop’ or explode, just like water hitting hot oil, so you’ll want to eliminate that messy event. And again, the whey creates a culture that attracts bacteria, and shortens storage life.

Carefully pour off, then spoon off as much of the golden ghee as you can. When you get down to the point where you just can’t keep the whey from mixing in, stop and set the pan in the refrigerator for an hour. This causes the remaining ghee to solidify into a solid yellow block. They liquid whey beneath it won’t harden.

Remove the pan from the fridge and tip it, just enough to slide the solid block of ghee aside so you can pour off the whey into a separate container. Now take the ghee ‘block’ out of pan, and any whey that remains on the bottom of the block can be easily patted off with paper towel or scraped off with a knife.

Mahamrtunjaya Mantra

According to Vedic tradition, there is a mantra one can chant when making ghee, known as the Mahamrtunjaya Mantra, or the Tryambakam Mantra. This hymn is found in the Rgveda (RV 7.59.12), and also in Yajurveda (TS 1.8.6.i; VS 3.60). The mantra addresses Lord Shiva as Tryambaka, the ‘three-eyed one’: tryambaka yajamahe sugandhi pushti-vardhanam urvarukam iva bandhanan mrityor mukshiya mamritat

Sugandhim refers to the sweet fragrance, and pushti to attaining a well-nourished condition. Vardhanam is one who causes health and strength to increase.


Text and images pasted from; Sampradaya Sun

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  1. Trackback: Prasadam – Ghee, Part Three | The Hare Krishna Movement
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