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Should I Cook Steak In Oil or Butter?

Can’t make up your mind between butter and oil? Ready to take your steak from bland to grand? Let’s do this.

What’s up, fellow foodies? Are you ready to dive into the fiery, sizzling, hissing, smoking world of steak cooking? If you are, then it’s time you and I put to bed the question that’s been on everyone’s mind lately: Should you cook steak in oil or butter?

Now, I know you’re thinking, “Isn’t this just a matter of preference?” And to some extent, you’d be right. But hear me out. There are some real ins and outs to cooking steak in oil and butter, and it’s important to know what they are, so you know exactly how to prepare that beautiful piece of meat sitting in your fridge.

Time to whip out that pan, take that steak out of the fridge, and get cooking.

Butter vs. Oil for Cooking Steak

When choosing a fat or oil for cooking a steak, one of the most important things to consider is its smoke point.

You know what it is, right? It’s the temperature at which the fat or cooking oil begins to break down and smoke. When it does, it can fill your kitchen with blue, noxious smoke and leave your steak tasting… well, weird.

Butter has a low smoke point, so it can’t handle the heat of high-heat cooking methods like searing or grilling and it will blacken and burn. But, if you’re using clarified butter—that’s butter with the milk solids removed—it has a higher smoke point and can handle the heat.

Different oils have smoke points, too. And since steak is best cooked at high heat, you want to use an oil with a high smoke point. So, which oils are good for cooking up a mean steak?

  • Avocado oil is flavorless, and has a smoke point of 480°F / 250°C or higher
  • Clarified butter (ghee) smells and tastes like butter, but has a smoke point of 450°F / 230°C
  • Rice bran oil makes your steak nutty and caramelly, and has a smoke point of 490°F / 255°C
  • Soybean oil, a netural-flavored cooking oil has a smoke point of 450°F / 232°C
  • Sunflower oil is cheap, flarless, and has a smoke point of 440°F / 227°C

These oils can take the heat and give your steak that beautiful sear without messing with the flavor.

Wait a Minute, What About Olive Oil?

“Dude,” you’re thinking, “what about olive oil?”

Not a great choice, my friend. First off, olive oil has a relatively low smoke point compared to other oils. So, if you’re cooking your steak at high heat, that olive oil’s going to burn and make your steak taste acrid. Nobody wants that.

But even more than that, olive oil’s got a pretty strong taste even when it isn’t burnt. And while that might be great in a salad dressing or on some bread, it isn’t so great on a steak. The oil’s going to overpower the taste of the steak—making it bitter instead of letting that beautiful piece of meat shine.

So, to make a long story short, olive oil isn’t the best oil for cooking up a steak. Period. Stick to oils with a high smoke point and a neutral flavor, and your taste buds will thank you.

Does That Mean You Shouldn’t Use Butter?

I know, I know… If you can’t use butter to cook your steak, what’s the point of eating steak in the first place? Well, hold on a sec, my friend. I’m not saying you can’t use butter on your steak at all—I’m just saying you can’t use it for cooking it.

If you, like me, are someone who can’t resist the taste of butter on your steak, there’s a way to make it happen. After you’ve cooked your steak to perfection, remove that bad boy from the pan and let it rest. Then, while the pan’s still hot, toss in a few pats of butter and let it melt in the residual heat. Once it’s all melty, spoon it over your steak and let it soak in all that buttery goodness.

And let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like a steak basted in butter. Throw in a few herbs and a clove or two of garlic, and it will be like getting a taste of heaven in your mouth. But, again, just remember that butter’s not the best option for cooking it. Use it for basting and you’ll have the best of both worlds.

Why Use Cooking Oil at All?

A good steak is fatty and succulent, and it’s going to release some of that fat into the pan as it cooks. But if you’re wondering why even add oil to your pan, hear me out. Drizzling just a little bit of oil on the cooking surface can help that pan conduct heat better and give your steak even browning. And browning is where the flavor is at.

When the steak’s surface gets crispy and golden brown, it creates all sorts of delicious compounds, like the aroma and flavor compounds that come from the Maillard reaction. That’s the fancy name for the rich, meaty taste and smell you get on a seared or grilled steak.

So, to sum it up, a little bit of oil can go a long way in helping you cook your steak to perfection.

Bottom Line

When cooking up a steak, consider the smoke point of the fat or oil you’re using.

Butter has a low smoke point, and it’s not for high-heat cooking methods like searing or grilling. But if you use clarified butter, which has had the milk solids removed, you raise the butter’s smoke point so it can handle the heat. High-smoke point oils like avocado oil, rice bran oil, and soybean oil can give the steak a beautiful sear without compromising the flavor.

Know your author

Written by

Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained cook with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.