Butter, clarified

Butter is a very simple thing, but these days, there are many different forms in which butter is available to the regular consumer.  Over the course of my professional involvement with food, I’ve observed that the simplicity with which the professional thinks of butter, is not shared by the regular home cook or shopper.  I’d like to try to help out here, so that you know what you’re buying, what you’re cooking with, and what you’re eating.


It doesn’t get much simpler than this.  Frequently marketed and labeled as “sweet cream butter” (basically the same thing), butter (as many of you may know) is made from churning cream (that’s the fat that naturally occurs in cow’s milk), until it thickens to a solid form, and then has the excess milk that doesn’t bind (aka: buttermilk) rinsed away or discarded.  The ingredient label on ordinary butter shouldn’t have much more than “pasteurized cream” on it. Any recipe you follow that simply calls for “butter”, is asking for this, not

Salted Butter

There’s a reason why salted butter needs to be specified as such: because normal butter isn’t salted.  I understand many people grew up in households (or currently occupy one) where salted butter is on-hand.  The only real purpose of salted butter is to spread on toast. The reason neither professional chefs, nor recipe books use salted butter is to maintain hands-on control over the level of salt going into whatever is being cooked:  As there’s no way to really know how much salt is in a tablespoon of salted butter, it’s just safer to start with unsalted butter and manually add the appropriate amount of salt to your liking.


Oh man, remember this stuff!? I can’t believe it’s not butter! That’s because it isn’t (and never was). This was all that was in my house growing up, because (like some of you, I’m sure) I had a mother that liked following food trends.  In the nineties, someone launched a smear campaign on regular butter, saying it was particularly unhealthy, and that there was a healthier alternative available! I won’t say butter is a staple of a healthy diet, but it is much healthier than hydrogenated corn oil — which is what margarine is.  Not to mention, unlike butter, all of the fat in margarine is trans-fat. I’ll be perfectly honest: I don’t know what trans fat is, but I do know it’s unhealthier than regular fat, because the body doesn’t break it down as easily. So, there’s a reason it’s hard to locate margarine on your grocery store shelves anymore.

Clarified Butter

This is a good one.  Clarified butter is interesting, because the average person doesn’t really know what it is.  Simply put, clarified butter is 100% milk fat. I’ll elaborate: butter is made up of both milk solids and milk fats.  If you ever try pan-cooking with butter, you’ll notice that with any extended exposure to heat, it turns brown rather quickly, and subsequently burns thereafter.  Just like with any fat, the more impurities that exist in the fat, the faster it will burn.

Clarified butter lacks any of those impurities.

Many clarified butter products are currently available to the public for sale, but you will typically find it in the “oil” section, as opposed to the “butter/dairy” section. but you can make it on your own:  Start with a couple sticks of butter in a small saucepan, and apply medium heat. First, the butter will melt. After melting, it will start to bubble, and a film will accumulate on the surface. After being on heat a little while longer, the milk solids will separate, and sink to the bottom, below the otherwise clear liquid fat above it.  Pour that clear fat into a container, and that is clarified butter. Clarified butter is attractive to cook with because, due to it’s lack of milk solids, its smoke point is higher than regular butter, olive oil, and canola oil. And a bonus feature: because the milk solids are absent, clarified butter is safe to consume for those with dairy allergies.

*Fun fact: because clarified butter lacks the milk solids that attract/allow for bacteria growth, it does not require refrigeration. I keep my clarified butter on my countertop with my cooking oils — usually for months on-end — and I’ve never had a container go bad!

Brown Butter

This is an “ingredient” called for in several sweet baking recipes, and you’ve probably seen it on a menu somewhere, (probably served over butternut squash ravioli with fried sage).  Here is what brown butter is: follow all the steps I just described for making clarified butter, but instead of pouring out the clarified butter, let it all cook a little longer. The milk solids that have sunk the bottom will eventually start to caramelize, and turn golden brown.  This will provide a sweet, nutty aroma that has a particular umami that is just wonderful in many fall and winter-themed dishes.

If making brown butter at home though, be careful, because the window in which brown butter exists is very small: brown butter is only brown for maybe 10-15 seconds before it quickly burns, and is then unusable for anything.  


While there are some really subtle differences between ghee and clarified butter, they’re basically the same thing.  But, due to a number of different cultural factors, ghee has risen in awareness and popularity in modern American kitchens, particularly in association with Indian cuisine and culture.  I only find this silly because, on many occasions, I’ve been in conversations with people lauding their new relationship with ghee, whose faces go blank when I ask them what they like about cooking with clarified butter. 

The only difference between the two: ghee is just clarified butter, cooked a little longer before the fat is separated from the solids. Letting it get a touch closer to the brown butter stage, gives it a hint of the flavor that comes with brown butter.

In Conclusion…

I know that after this itemized look at the different forms “butter” can take, many are asking “well thanks Glenn. That was informative, but what’s your preferred butter to use?” The answer (as simply as I can put it) is, whole, clarified, and brown.

I can’t choose one, because they all have different functions and purposes. Would I use whole butter to sear a steak in a pan? No, I’d use clarified. But I would use whole butter to slather it with at the end of the cooking process to keep it moist and impart some of the rich flavor. Would I use clarified butter in my mashed potatoes? No, I’d use whole butter, because the milk solids (absent in clarified) are what gives butter it’s flavor/texture. I’d never use margarine in anything, and if I wanted salt in my butter, I’ll spread regular butter on my toast, and then sprinkle it with the variety, and quantity of the salt that I prefer, like a goddamned American/chef!

One thought on “Butter, clarified

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s