Spotlight Ingredient: Grass-Fed Clarified Butter (Samna Baladi)

Ancient Egyptians milking cattle and cooking with dairy products

When I asked my grandparents which ingredient they believed distinguishes Egyptian cooking, they both immediately responded at the same time: “samna baladi“! Samna baladi, or ghee, is literally clarified butter. Most Egyptian dishes are traditionally prepared with clarified butter, which is used to saute onions, brush on meats before cooking, and for baking almost anything authentically. It’s safe to assume that you can use it instead of butter in almost any dish – the flavor is rich and hearty, so a spoonful goes a long way!

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A spoonful of 100% grass-fed clarified butter

Though popularized in the West by South Asian cooking, clarified butter (also known as ‘samn’ in Arabic or ‘ghee’ in Sanskrit) has been made in Egyptian homes for thousands of years. An article published in Nature magazine in 2008 revealed that dairy and dairy products (like clarified butter, cheese, butter) were consumed regularly two thousand years earlier than previously thought – making these nourishing foods more than 8,500 years old! And traditional societies still prize clarified butter and full-fat dairy products to this day for both their health benefits and the rich taste they impart on many dishes.

Fellaheen Egyptian Boy on Bison, Photograph taken in 1882

What is the history of making samna baladi in Egypt?

The article Cuisine in Alexandria: A Cosmopolitan Flavor chronicles the way that samna baladi was made in Egypt, forty or fifty years ago: “Samna baladi remains the favorite and often food would be advertised as having been cooked with samna baladi. In the good old days, well-to-do families would prepare it at home, rather than buy it from the market.  A whole day would be set aside for the process, which often involved a peasant woman coming especially from the countryside to supervise the activity. Here is Wadida Wassef describing how samna was made at her parents’ home in the 1940s:

When spring came it would be time to make the yearly stock of samna. Om el Hana would appear at the kitchen door with our ration of butter which she carried on her head in a huge flat basket all the way from her village. In a first operation in the village the butter was kneaded with salt then shaped into fat sausages, then loaded onto Om el Hana’s head. Then she and her basket were sat on a donkey who took them to the railway station where she boarded the goods train that stopped here and there to pick up all manner of passenger, animal or human. When she reached our house the second operation began. Mother sitting on a low stool, Om el Hana on the floor, placed the butter in a huge copper cauldron and took turns stirring it … [the] butter settled at the bottom, the samna, without which no food cooked in Egyptian homes was worthy of the name, floated on top. It was then poured into big earthen jars and stored in the pantry to last until the next spring. The operation lasted from early morning until sunset. Samna is a classic of Egyptian cooking … The thought of food cooked in oil or vegetable fat made their stomachs turn (Gastromony in Alexandria).

Samna baladi is used prolifically in Egyptian cuisine. The fallaheen (farmers) often dip hard boiled eggs in a bowl of warmed samna during breakfast, next to a true whole-wheat pita bread sandwich of feta cheese and homegrown tomatoes. Dinner always contained samna, whether in the form of a sauteed onion in all tabeekh (Egyptian cooking – usually of vegetables – with sauteed onion, strained tomatoes and spices) or fancier dishes made during feasts, such as filo dough filled with ground beef or stuffed vegetables.

What are the health benefits of organic, grass-fed clarified butter?

Clarified butter that is made from the milk of cows that are pastured and grazing on lush, organically grown grass (or in Egypt, it would be barseem-fed cows) is actually very healthy for the body. Grass-fed cows produce milk (and therefore, clarified butter) with a higher level of CLA, or Conjugated Linoleic Acid, “an antioxidant and essential fatty acid that  […] reportedly exhibits anti-carcinogenic and other beneficial physiological effects”. The milk from grass-fed cattle also includes higher lauric acid, which aids in fighting fungus and candida. Grass-fed ghee also has a balanced ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids (3:1), as compared to grain-fed, conventionally-raised cows, which produce milk with an imbalanced ratio of the fats (20:1). This imbalance has been linked to modern diseases especially heart disease, and generally with poor health. Clarified butter, without man-made trans fats and hydrogenated oils, actually has a lot of healthy fat-soluble vitamins, like A, D, E, and K, critical to bone, brain, heart, and immune system function, and which aid in the absorption of vitamins and minerals found in fresh fruits and vegetables. In other words, if you eat all the fresh produce in the world without adding some healthy fat, those vitamins that are fat-soluble will not be absorbed by the body.

Guernsey_Cows_Raw_Milk
The cows from which we buy our milk: pasture-raised and grass-fed on a small family farm

 What are some common misconceptions about clarified butter as a saturated fat?

Until several months ago when my interest in nutrition peaked, I hadn’t even considered buying clarified butter. Foods high in naturally-present saturated fats such as whole dairy and coconuts have been demonized for the past fifty or sixty years. This is because a few poorly conducted studies in the 1950s concluded that foods that are naturally high in saturated fat and dietary cholesterol contribute to artery-clogging plaque which result in heart disease – a theory that has become known as the lipid hypothesis. The dietary recommendations soon switched to ‘low-fat’ and ‘high-carb’ -diets  a disasterous shift in the world of ‘nutrition’ which is currently resulting in a world-wide epidemic of obesity, climbing cases of diabetes and heart disease, and other health problems (such as fertility, hormonal and bone problems, etc.). History showcases that, for thousands of years, our ancestors liberally ate foods cooked with saturated fat (such as clarified butter) and yet, heart disease was significantly lower (or nearly nonexistent) as compared to today: “In America, the rate of heart disease soared during a period when saturated fats consumption fell sharply. Before 1900, heart disease was rare in America, affecting about 8 percent of the population. By 1950, heart disease caused 30 percent of all deaths in America. Today, it causes about 45 percent of all deaths” – now, it’s the number 1 leading cause of death in America.

skinny on fats

These faulty scientific studies have unfortunately contributed to a skewed understanding of the role of good quality fats in our diet, which resulted in many doctors’ and media recommendations to switch to vegetable oils. Though many recent studies and reviews (here’s just another example) show that the assumption is unfounded, which states that saturated fat and dietary cholesterol contribute to heart disease, the medical community hasn’t yet corrected this information publicly, likely due to certain pressures from the enormously influential and corrupt food and pharmaceutical industries. Here’s a great article by Dr. Donald W. Miller, which gives a good idea of how the lipid hypothesis has come into question in recent years, and enumerates compelling evidence that the low-fat, high-carb diet is a huge hoax.

Vegetable oils are naturally meant to exist in liquid form at room temperature. Today’s ‘vegetable ghee’ (margarine, and other butter substitutes) are in solid form – and in order to make them that way, they are hydrogenated, becoming “trans fats”, now unanimously recognized as harmful for health. Numerous studies have shown the negative effects of trans fats on the body, which have been definitively proven to increase obesity and heart disease. Because butter-substitute manufacturers are now realizing that trans fats in margarine are shunned by health-seeking consumers, they’ve come up with another concoction of synthetic materials and hardened oils that are technically not “trans fats”, and it’s being recommended as a healthy alternative. “Keep in mind, though, that according to the FDA, a product claiming to have zero trans fat can actually contain up to a half gram” (Harvard). Though more studies are needed (here’s one such article) to ‘prove’ that these, such as Earth Balance and Smart Balance, are actually harmful, you need only read the ingredient lists on these products to see that  there is nothing natural about them. It is quite analogous to the sugar-substitute industry, whereby, whenever a compound becomes publicized as carcinogenic, a new one is designed that is similar, but yet unproven harmful. Instead of these companies, regulators and consumers recognizing that the problem is in using “innovative” untested ingredients, they continue to assume an ingredient is harmless until proven otherwise, and to experiment with their and the public’s health.

I like to abide by Michael Pollan‘s food philosophy on processed foods: “Novelty in biology is guilty until proven innocent. Mutations are novelties, and every now and then there’s a great mutation that confers an advantage on the creature. But 99 out of 100 mutations are disasters. So when we come up with a completely new way of using a food, combining a food or processing a food, I’d just as soon watch some other people eat it for a couple hundred years before I try it.” (Pollan)

 What are the benefits of cooking with clarified butter instead  of vegetable oils?

Unlike vegetable oils, clarified butter has the more stable saturated bonds (i.e., it lacks double bonds which are easily damaged by heat), and therefore has a very high smoke point – in other words, it can tolerate a much higher temperature before burning  (400-450 degrees Fahrenheit). Cooking oils and margarine in high heat encourage the formation of dangerous free radicals. The article “Buttering Up to Samna” explains it quite accurately: “Butter can be used for cooking, but when it is heated to a high temperature, the milk proteins are quickly scorched. In order to cook in butter at a high temperature, we prepare clarified butter. During the preparation process you heat the butter at a relatively low temperature. The heating causes the emulsion to disintegrate: the water evaporates and some of the milk solids sink to the bottom, others float to the top, and the fat remains in the middle. When you remove the floating milk solids and strain out those that have settled on the bottom, you get pure butterfat. With this fat, you can fry and cook at a high temperature, without it scorching like ordinary butter.” Also, when the butter is clarified and the milk solids are removed, the result is a lactose-free fat that will not upset the stomachs of those who are lactose-intolerant.

What kind of clarified butter is good to buy?

Here’s a detailed post about how to make clarified butter, or samna baladi, at home. This post in Agricultural Society gives some recipes for making herbal-infused or flavored clarified butter at home, which look very intriguing! However, good butter is hard to find year-round (the springtime grasses produce the best quality milk), so it’s ideal to buy from a trusted source for the rest of the year. High-quality clarified butter should never be compared in price with cheaply produced butter-substitutes or mass-produced vegetable oils. Samna was even expensive back in the day in Egypt; and yet, my grandparents used it liberally in most of their cooking because they recognized its health benefits and superior taste.

 How is clarified butter ideally stored and used?

Because the clarified butter is without milk solids, it remains stable and has a relatively long shelf-life (about a year if unopened and stored in a sealed container). Once you do open a jar, you can safely assume that it will stay good for about three months. Make sure to only use clean and dry utensils in your clarified butter jar, so as not to introduce moisture or any contaminant that can make it spoil.

So there you have it – more reason to enjoy clarified butter, without feeling any guilt about increasing your intake of saturated fats! I personally delight in cooking with samna baladi – the taste is unbeatable and authentic, reminding me of my days as a child in Egypt, enjoying my grandma’s rich and tasty cooking. If you have any questions about samna, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments section below!

18 Comments

  1. Extremely informative and well-written article. Ghee is also a mainstay of Indian cooking, and we too believe in the health benefits – obviously when had in moderation. In India, we still make it from scratch sometimes…the taste of fresh homemade ghee is supposed to be quite exquisite.

    • Thanks so much! Yes I know that ghee is huge in Indian cuisine … and prized for its many health benefits. The most important thing with fats (including ghee) is the QUALITY. If it’s coming from grass-fed pastured-raised cows and non-homogenized milk, then it is definitely superior to any random kind from cows that are confined and fed GMO grain ….

  2. I’ve bought ghee and have tried making my own from grassfed butter. How do I know I’ve really achieved it? Do you have a recipe? I just went by what I read when I googled ghee. It looks like ghee.

    • I haven’t yet tried making it at home, but have watched my grandma do it on the stovetop in Egypt. It’s pretty simple – here’s a straightforward recipe that I link in the post: http://www.ecurry.com/blog/basics/ghee-clarified-butter/ The key is to heat low and slow and never to let the solids that settle burn, as this will ruin the taste of the ghee. If you tried to make it and it successfully looks like ghee, then you’ve probably succeeded!

  3. I’ve used Pure Indian Foods flavored ghee and they were awesome – specifically their garlic and Herbs de Provence. I thought I’d like the Herbs… least but ran out of that one first!

  4. Hi Heba,
    A very well written post/article! I learned so much about the health benefits of ghee. I never used it before. Thank you for sharing:)

  5. Heba – You have officially converted me to a ghee user! I just finished the little tub I bought months ago because I have been using a spoon here and there in all of my recipes. I usually prefer olive oil, but I am happy with switching between the two. Go ghee!

  6. I have 3 Egyptian families coming for lunch, we are doing a Braai (Bar-B- Que) but I would as a mark of respect like to cook something special and Egyptian to surprise them. there are 6 Adults and 6 Children. Any ideas please.

    They are all medical people but one is a very special surgeon who recently saved my husbands life. I need something fit for a King 🙂
    Thank you.

    • Hi Hiba, I wouldn’t be comfortable with the Ziyad brand because I’m not sure where their cows are raised and if they’re exclusively grass-fed (the distinction makes a big difference in both taste and health benefits)> But that’s just a personal opinion. 🙂 Back in the day, we used to get the green tin can with the black cow on it (not sure if you’ve ever seen it) and of course back then we had no idea what the difference was between grass-fed and not (and likely, more cows were naturally raised back then too, so it didn’t make a big difference). Try to find out how the Ziyad brand makes the ghee if you can and where their cows are located in the world.

  7. I believe that there is a brand of grass-fed pure butter ghee available in Egypt. It’s manufactured by Dina Farms who also offer an excellent fresh dairy range of products.

  8. I know how to make it at home however I need the spices. The main spice is Handagoogh. I am trying to find out what it is called in english ! Any idea

      • You do realize that South Asians have the highest rate of heart attacks MAINLY because of ghee and the huge amount of fat that is in it? It clogs arteries and causes heart attacks. I think the cons greatly outweigh the pros, which is just good taste and maybe small amounts of the pros that you have listed.

        • Hi Davis, thanks for your comment! The theory that saturated fat is responsible for clogging arteries and causing heart attacks is completely unfounded and unproven. Did you click on the many links throughout my article? Please take some time to read the links and let me know what specific points in which articles and studies you disagree with.

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