Cast iron cookware is cheap, heats up incredibly well, and, thanks to the fact that it’s cast from a single piece of molten iron, can be used virtually anywhere—even on the outside grill or over a campfire.
It can also be tricky to use for first-time owners or seasoned cooks who don’t know all the quirks of cookware made of this metal. Especially if you’re cooking with a more delicate fat, like butter.
“I have never been able to use butter successfully in cast iron,” one Redditor says, “The pan is usually hot and the butter starts smoking. I’m not sure if I should use a cooler pan—and won’t that make food stick to it?”
For those of you who only want the quick takeaway from this post, here it is…
Can you put butter in cast iron?
Yes, you can cook with butter in your cast iron skillet or Dutch oven. Keep in mind that butter burns at temperatures above 350°F (177°C), so you shouldn’t use high heat when you’re frying foods with it. Either turn down the heat or substitute it with an oil that has a higher smoke point.
All vegetable oils and animal fats have a smoke point, the temperature at which they stop to glisten and shimmer and start to break down and burn.
When you heat an oil or fat past its smoke point, it forms carcinogenic compounds harmful to your health, imparts a burnt flavor to the food in your skillet, and starts to emit a continuous stream of bluish smoke that builds up as soon on your kitchen’s walls.
As a general rule of thumb, you should always match your choice of cooking oil or fat to the heat of your cooking. For example, when you’re browning steak or pan-frying salmon over medium-high heat, it’s best to use an oil with a high smoke point, such as avocado oil or rice bran oil.
Gentler oils, like extra virgin olive oil, and animal fats, like butter or duck fat, have lower smoke points and should only be used to cook over low to medium heat.
Compared to most cooking oils and fats, butter has a low smoke point of 350°F (177°C), which is why it burns so easily. Contrary to what most cooks think, combining it with other oils won’t raise its smoke point.
If the lump of butter burns every time you add it to your cast iron skillet, this is a sign that you’re overheating it. There are three things that you can do about this based on what you’re looking to achieve.
When you’re searing meat—cooking it briefly over high heat to bring out the aroma, form a delicious crust, and enhance its flavor—it’s best to use a cooking oil with a high smoke point.
My favorite is rice bran oil because it’s the healthiest oil at the most reasonable price, and most grocery stores carry it. I’ve written a whole post about the smoke points of cooking oils and fats that will help you make the right choice (for your taste and budget).
You can use butter when sautéing mushrooms, asparagus, or thin slices of chicken, as long as you don’t heat it past its smoke point of 350°F (177°C). So be sure to set your stove to medium heat and, if you notice any signs of burning or smoke, turn it down a notch.
Last but not least, if you like the smell and taste of butter, you could use ghee as a high-heat cooking fat.
Ghee is made by heating butter until the water in it evaporates, and the milk solids can be separated from the fats. What’s left is the liquid fat with a smoke point of 450°F (232°C).
“Substitute 1-1 ghee for regular butter,” a Home Cook World reader recommends to everyone else.
But Shouldn’t You Cook on High Heat?
As I taught myself how to cook through trial and error over the years, one of the top lessons I learned is that there’s rarely a need to cook on high heat (or medium-high heat, for that matter).
Nowadays, I have a German induction cooktop that goes from 1 to 9 in terms of heat. For most of my recipes, I cook on settings 4 to 5, which most people would call “medium heat.” When I cooked with a radiant electric and gas stoves, I used to use settings 6 to 7 (out of 9 again).
This is something few television chefs or cookbook authors will talk about. Which often baffles me because it’s a piece of knowledge that’s important!
Here’s why (as well as the things you can do differently from the very next time you fire up the stove).
Generally speaking, you need to cook on heat that’s high enough to trigger the Maillard reaction, but not so high that it causes your cooking oil or food to burn.
The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction that starts at 284°F (140°C), which causes the sugars in your food to brown and produces hundreds of aromatic and flavorful compounds as a byproduct. It’s the reason why grilled steak, toast bread, and roast coffee taste so good.
But this reaction reaches its peak at 356°F (180°C), at which stage your food starts to burn—developing bitter aromas, acrid flavors, and free radicals potentially harmful to your health.
Food cooks from the outside-in, and it takes time for it to reach that internal temperature. Still, cooking over excessively high heat is a sure-fire way (pun totally intended) to burn your food on the outside while leaving it undercooked on the inside.
If you’ve ever made French fries that seemed done but were completely raw in the center when you bit into them, you know what I’m talking about.
Won’t Food Stick to My Pan at Lower Heat?
As long as your cast iron cookware is well-seasoned, you won’t need to worry about food sticking to it.
The “seasoning” is a natural patina of carbonated oil on the cooking surface of your skillet, grill pan, or Dutch oven, which acts as a protective layer between your food and the metal.
That protective layer keeps the proteins in the food from forming bonds with the metal ions the same way it does when you cook eggs, salmon, or fries in stainless steel.
If you recently bought a cast iron skillet, the chances are it probably came pre-seasoned (in recent years, most cast iron cookware is sold that way). But if you’ve owned it for a while or have been cleaning it with abrasive cleaners, the seasoning could have worn off by now.
In my experience, cast iron cookware needs re-seasoning once to three times per year, depending on how you use it and how well you care for it.