Butter in a cast iron skillet — sounds simple enough, right? Well, it’s not always a clear-cut “yes” or “no.” Here’s the full scoop.
It’s hardly surprising that cast iron skillets are famed as the workhorses of the kitchen.
Heavy, bulky, and thick-bottomed, these pans may be slow to heat. But once they reach the desired temperature, they retain and transfer the heat to your food like no other.
This makes cast iron pans ideal for a range of cooking tasks, from searing steak to browning bacon to pan-frying pork chops. They’re equally effective as bakeware in the merciless heat of the oven.
If you’re new to the world of cast iron, you might be wondering, “Can I cook with butter in this thing?” Like any savvy home cook, you grabbed your phone, did a quick search, and landed on this article. Welcome, and let’s dive in!
Can You Put Butter in Cast Iron?
The answer is a resounding yes—you can certainly use butter in a cast iron pan. However, there are some caveats.
First, butter is suitable for cooking, but not for seasoning your pan. Second, it’s not ideal for all cooking methods due to its low smoke point, which means it can burn easily.
The good news? This is nothing new! Before the advent of cooking oil, home cooks relied on butter, lard, tallow, and schmalz for cooking in their cast iron skillets. Armed with the right know-how and technique, you can use butter in your cast iron just like they did in the good old days.
Cooking With Butter in Cast Iron
The key to cooking with butter in a cast iron skillet lies in using low to medium heat. Crank the heat too high, and the butter will reach temperatures that exceed its smoke point, causing it to burn.
Why is this a concern? Well, butter is made up of milk fat, milk solids, and water. When cooked at overly high temperatures, the milk solids can burn, resulting in unsightly black specks on your food and a bitter flavor.
In practical terms, this makes butter ideal for low-heat cooking methods like sweating a mirepoix (a mix of chopped celery, onion, and carrot). It’s less suitable for high-heat methods like searing meat or sautéing vegetables.
But here’s the thing: you actually have options for raising butter’s smoke point.
One approach is to mix it with a cooking oil that has a higher smoke point. Avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil, and rice bran oil are all good choices.
The second method is to make clarified butter, also known as ghee. This involves melting the butter and skimming off the foam to remove the milk solids. By doing so, you take away the parts of the butter that burn easily, making it suitable for higher-heat cooking.
And remember, cast iron cools down just as slowly as it heats up. If you’re cooking with butter or a mix of butter and another oil, be vigilant about reducing the heat if you suspect the butter is starting to burn.
You can easily gauge this by observing the butter’s color. If the butter starts to brown quickly, it’s on a fast track to blackening and burning. Consider removing the pan from the heat to prevent damage to your dish.
I’ve found that this low-heat approach works wonders when cooking steak with butter in cast iron: About 30 seconds before your steak is done cooking, simply remove the pan from the heat. Add a generous pat of butter and then baste the creamy, melted butter over the steak. This technique not only adds a rich flavor but also helps to keep the meat moist.
Note: If you’re encountering the term “smoke point” for the first time, it’s the temperature at which a fat or cooking oil begins to break down and burn. We’ve written more on the topic here.
Do Not Season Cast Iron With Butter
Cast iron, as any owner of cast iron cookware will tell you, is a reactive metal. Without some form of protection, it can react with oxygen in the air and the water molecules in moisture, leading to corrosion and rust.
To protect our cast iron pans and pots, we season them. Seasoning involves applying a thin layer of oil to the pan, both inside and out, and then baking it at a high temperature. This creates a protective layer that renders the metal non-reactive.
However, not all fats are suitable for seasoning cast iron—and butter is one to avoid. The milk solids and water content in butter make it a poor choice for seasoning, as they can lead to uneven coating and poor coverage. (This isn’t to say that butter doesn’t help build up the seasoning of your pan or pot; it simply isn’t a great choice for that initial layer of seasoning.)
If butter is off the table for seasoning your cast iron skillet, then what fats or oils should you be going for? It’s a question with as many answers as there are cooks. But as someone who not only owns cast iron cookware but also has spent significant time researching, testing, and writing about it, here’s my take.
Use a thin, flavorless cooking oil that stays liquid at room temperature. Canola, flaxseed, and grapeseed oil are all great options for seasoning cast iron. There’s solid science behind these choices, and there’s good reason why they are the go-to picks of many a cast iron owner.
What This Means For You
Yes, you can use butter in a cast iron skillet, but it’s all about how you use it. If you’re using pure butter, stick to low or moderate heat, or remove the skillet from the heat source immediately after the food is cooked. Alternatively, you can mix butter with a cooking oil that has a higher smoke point or opt for clarified butter for high-heat cooking. And remember, butter should not be used to season your cast iron skillet.You've voted for this post