Ghee is essentially a form of clarified butter. The process of clarifying butter is a bit complex. The butter is melted and simmered in a pot or large saucepan until three layers form: a foamy, watery layer, which is skimmed off, a solid butter layer, and a milk solids layer. The separated butter is the clarified butter, a liquid mass of rich, golden butterfat.
Ghee has quite a long history, as it has been used in Indian cooking for thousands of years. Ghee is an essential (and nutritional) element in much of Indian cuisine, much the way butter or margarine is used in American cooking. Ghee also transcends the cooking realm, as ghee is also often used in religious ceremonies and various healing arts in Indian culture. Ghee has many nutritional and health benefits as well.
Chefs often use clarified butter because it will not burn during frying (this is known as a high smoking point), and it possesses a more buttery flavor. The longer the melted butter cooks, the more intense the resulting flavor of the clarified butter will be.
Ghee lacks hydrogenated oils and is a popular choice for health-conscious cooks as well. Additionally, since all the milk proteins have been removed during the clarifying process, ghee gains further nutritional value because it's lactose free, making it a safer alternative for those who are lactose intolerant.
Clarified butter is composed primarily of saturated fat. It contains approximately 14 grams of fat per tablespoon but no artificial additives, preservatives, or trans fats. Consuming large quantities of ghee is obviously unhealthy, but because of the rich flavor of ghee, it can be used sparingly to full effect, making it more suitable for low-fat diets. A good guideline is one tablespoon of ghee as opposed to four tablespoons of any other butter or cooking oil.
Ghee is most notably said to stimulate the secretion of stomach acids to help with digestion, while other fats, such as butter and oils, slow down the digestive process and can sit heavy in the stomach. Although tests and research are still ongoing, it has been used in Indian medicinal practice to help with ulcers, constipation, and the promotion of healthy eyes and skin. An Ayurvedic remedy for thousands of years, ghee is also said to promote learning and increased memory retention. It is used in Indian beauty creams to help soften skin, and as a topical for the treatment of burns and blisters.
In addition to ghee's nutritional value, it is rich with antioxidants and acts as an aid in the absorption of vitamins and minerals from other foods, feeding all layers of body tissue and serving to strengthen the immune system. A high concentration of butyric acid, a fatty acid that contains anti-viral properties, is believed to inhibit the growth of cancerous tumors.