Should I Cook Steak In Oil or Butter?

Should I Cook Steak In Oil or Butter?
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Who can turn down a thick and juicy steak? There’s something about a tender cut of meat, marbled with fat and cooked till golden brown, that you can’t replace with anything else.

Cooking steak is one of those things that are easy to understand and hard to master. And, when it comes to cooking steak, there’s one question that home cooks often ask… Should you cook steak in oil or butter?

When pan-searing steak, it’s best to use clarified butter or cooking oil with a high smoke point. Avocado oil, soybean oil, and canola oil are all cooking oils with high smoke points (520°F, 450°F, and, respectively, 400°F). The smoke point of clarified butter is 450°F.

The smoke point of a cooking oil or animal fat is the temperature at which it stops to shimmer and starts to break down and smoke. When this happens, toxic fumes get released into the air and free radicals that are harmful to your health end up in your food.

Butter has a low smoke point at approximately 350°F. When you’re searing steak, you’re pan-frying it at high heat and for as little time as possible till golden brown. High heat means that you’re cooking at any temperature between 400°F and 500°F (depending on your stove and cookware).

By the time you’re done searing the steak, the butter will burn, making the meat taste bitter. Browned butter tastes sweet and nutty. Burned butter has a black color and tastes unpleasant and bitter.

Clarified butter, which is basically milk fat rendered from the butter, has a high smoke point (450°F). This is why clarified butter will not burn when you’re searing steak in it.

As you’re reading this, some of you are probably wondering… Why not use extra virgin olive oil?

Extra virgin olive oil is often touted as a one-size-fits-all cooking oil for all your needs. However, that’s not really the case.

Extra virgin olive oil has a relatively low smoke point of 374°F, which makes it unfit for high-heat cooking. When searing steak (or sauté veggies), you should consider using cooking oils with a higher smoke point, such as avocado oil or canola oil.

How to Cook Steak With Butter

By now you’re clear that butter has a low smoke point and you shouldn’t sear your steak in it. But that shouldn’t really stop you from cooking steak with butter, you know. Here’s one trick that you can use to make restaurant-style steak in your home kitchen.

With a basting brush, spread 1 tablespoon high-smoke-point cooking oil on a skillet. Preheat the pan on high heat for about 5 minutes. Season your steak with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper and sear it on all sides, so that it has a nice color and all-around crust.

Turn down the heat to medium and throw in a knob (about 1 ounce) of butter. The butter will start to slowly but surely melt on the residual heat of the pan. If you like herbs and garlic, now is a good time to add thyme or garlic. With a basting spoon, spoon butter over the steak for 1 minute, then turn it and do the same to the other side.

How Much Oil to Use When Cooking Steak?

You don’t really need much oil to cook steak. A thick and fatty steak already comes with most of the animal fat it needs to not stick to the pan or grill and have a depth of flavor. The more marbled with fat a cut is, the more succulent the taste.

Spread 1 tablespoon of cooking oil on your skillet with a basting brush before preheating it to the desired temperature. Or, alternatively, grease the steak itself with just enough oil before seasoning it with salt and pepper — and putting it on the grill.

Follow this rule and, over time, you’ll also save some money by reducing waste in the kitchen. The only thing that’s going to happen when you use too much oil for searing steak is that you’ll throw that oil away as soon as you’re done.

What’s the Best Oil to Cook Steak In?

Know your cooking oils when you shop at the grocery store

Searing is by far the most popular way to cook steak. It’s often thought that searing steak seals the juices inside. But science shows us that the opposite is true. When you sear steak, the crust that forms isn’t water-tight. And a sear steak dries out faster than an unseared one.

Nevertheless, searing produces the tastiest steak because it triggers something known as the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its distinctive flavor.

Searing happens at high heat. And, for high-heat cooking, you need an oil with a high smoke point. Here’s my guide to the best oils for cooking steak in.

The best oils for high-heat cooking are avocado, soybean, sunflower, and canola oil, as they have high smoke points when compared to other oils. They also have a neutral flavor, which is exactly what most cooks are looking for when searing or deep-frying food.

You will find all of these oils in the cooking oils aisle at any supermarket or grocery store. My personal favorite is canola oil. It’s very versatile (as it has a neutral taste) and extremely affordable (1 gallon comes at approximately $5).

Amma of simply amma recommends rice bran oil in the comments. “I buy it by the gallon, and use it in everything — salads, frying, baking, pancakes. It has a mild, buttery flavor, and with a smoke point of 490ºF. (…) And it’s far cheaper than avocado oil.”

If you’re wondering which cooking oil or animal fat to use at what heat, here’s a neat little chart to help you make the right choice every time:

Cooking oilSmoke pointCooking temperature
Avocado oil520°F (271°C)High heat
Rice bran oil490˚F (254°C)High heat
Soybean oil450°F (230°C)High heat
Clarified butter450°F (232°C)High heat
Sunflower oil440°F (225°C)High heat
Canola oil400°F (205°C)High heat
Beef tallow400°F (205°C)High heat
Grapeseed oil390°F (195°C)Medium-high heat
Duck fat375°F (190°C)Medium-high heat
Extra-virgin olive oil374°F (190°C)Medium-high heat
Pork lard370°F (180°C)Medium heat
Vegetable shortening360°F (180°C)Medium heat
Butter350°F (180°C)Medium heat
Coconut oil350°F (180°C)Medium heat
The best oils for cooking at high, medium-high, and medium heat

What’s your favorite cooking oil and why? Let me know in the comments below.

In Conclusion

You should sear your steak in cooking oil, not butter. Butter has a low smoke point and will burn at the high heat you need to make steak that’s neatly crisp and golden brown on the outside, but tender and juicy on the inside.

If you like the nutty and sweet taste of butter, you can still finish your steak in butter immediately after you’re done searing it. Just turn down the heat to medium, add a knob of butter, and start spooning the butter on the steak. To get that steak house taste and flavor, you can also add thyme and a clove of garlic to your pan while doing this.

Home cooking is all about knowing how to tailor your ingredients to your cooking technique. Master that — and your friends and family are going to wish that their favorite restaurant made food just like you do.

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  1. Amma

    I am wondering why rice bran oil hasn’t made it onto your list. I buy it by the gallon, and use it in everything — salads, frying, baking, pancakes. It has a mild, buttery flavor, and with a smoke point of 490º, it would shove soybean oil out of second place and take its rightful place at the top below avocado oil. And it’s far cheaper than avocado oil, so unless expense is no option — or you have something against rice brain oil? — then rice brain oil should top a list of practical options.

    1. Post
      Jim the Home Cook

      Amma, thanks for stopping by! I missed rice bran oil indeed. Just added it to the list. Hope you don’t mind; I liked your description of it so much that I quoted you a paragraph above it 🙂

    2. Amma

      Thank you so much, Jim; I appreciate that! 😊 I’m glad to see my favorite oil on your list now! 😄

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