Should You Cook Burgers in Oil or Butter?

Pan-frying burgers

Whether you’re making burgers on the outside grill or searing them on your stove with a skillet, it’s important to know how to cook it.

When I talk about burgers with friends and readers who are beginners in cooking, one of the questions that come up the most is, “Should you cook burgers in oil or butter?”

In this post, I’m going to give you my take on the topic. Butter may seem like a good choice, but cooking correctly with it is a bit tricker than most people think.

So, let’s get on with it.

Is it better to cook burgers with oil or butter?

Cook burgers with an oil or fat with a high smoke point, such as avocado oil or rice bran oil. Avoid butter since it has the tendency to burn. You only need enough oil to be able to grease your pan. Drizzle 1 tablespoon in your pan, and wipe it with a paper towel on the bottom and sides.

The fact that cooking oils and fats burn is a topic that most celebrity chefs and cookbook authors don’t talk enough about.

All oils and fats have a smoke point (also known as the “burning point”), the temperature at which they stop to move around in your pan and start to burn.

When you heat an oil or fat above its smoke point, it starts giving off a steady stream of bluish smoke and forms compounds potentially harmful to your health (including free radicals and carcinogens). Last but not least, it adds a bitter, unpleasant taste to your food.

One of the things every home cook needs to learn is how to match their cooking oil choice to the heat they plan to cook with.

Keep on reading to find out some of the best oils for pan-frying burgers.

What’s the Best Oil for Cooking Burgers?

Generally speaking, all cooking oils and fats from the grocery store fall into one of two categories: those with a low and those with a high smoke point.

Low smoke point oils and fats are best for dressing salads, marinating meats, adding to bread and pizza doughs, and cooking over low to medium heat. Butter falls into this category.

High smoke point oils and fats are ideal for searing, suatéing, and deep-frying foods, usually involving medium to medium-high heat (and, in rare cases, high heat).

Unless frozen, we cook burgers at medium-high heat, suggesting a cooking temperature between 375°-450°F (190.5-232.2°C).

The cooking temperature that comes with medium-high heat makes it easy to heat butter—and other just as delicate oils and fats—above its smoke point if you cook with it.

When cooking burgers, use cooking oil with a high smoke point. The five best supermarket oils for the job are avocado oil, rice bran oil, safflower oil, corn oil, and sunflower oil.

To help you pick, here’s my chart of the smoke point of cooking oils and fats:

Why Do Chefs Cook Burgers In Butter?

“Jim,” some of you are probably thinking, “if all of this is true, then why do chefs often cook with butter?”

As regular readers of this blog know, I welcome a good question on any day.

Indeed, professional chefs often cook with butter. However, they do so mostly over medium heat in a technique known as “sautéing.” Sautéing involves cooking sliced vegetables or thin pieces of meat, poultry, and seafood very briefly, in as little oil or fat as possible.

Cooking burgers on your stove is a different game. You’re not looking to take them off the heat as soon as possible. Instead, you’re giving them enough time to brown and cook through on the inside.

Still, you can cook burgers in butter. But you have to do it after you’ve initially browned the meat over medium-high heat—and brought down the heat to medium.

The butter slowly caramelizes, adding a rich and creamy taste to the burger patty. As reported by Delish magazine, Gordon Ramsay swears by this technique and employs it in his Planet Hollywood restaurant in Vegas.

Try this technique out and let me (and the rest of this post’s readers) know how it turned out for you.

What Kind of Pan Is Best for Burgers?

Here’s something you won’t see on every recipe: when cooking burgers at home, your skillet is almost as important as your choice of meat and cooking oil.

First and foremost, don’t try to cook your burgers in a non-stick pan. The coatings of non-stick cookware, PTFE or ceramic, are incapable of producing the browning you can get with bare-metal pans.

A cast iron, carbon steel, and clad stainless steel skillet with a thick and heavy bottom is your best cookware choice for pan-frying a burger. This type of pans heat up and hold on to heat exceptionally well, resulting in perfectly crispy and neatly browned patties.

Copper pans are also great for searing and grilling meats on your stove. Because copper cookware is so rare and expensive nowadays, they’re not that common in the American cook’s home kitchen.

Do You Need Oil to Cook Burgers on the Stove?

The answer to this question depends on your frying pan.

If you’re using a non-stick pan (PTFE or ceramic), you can cook without any cooking oil whatsoever. The slick coating will keep the patty from sticking even before some of the fat melts and drips into the pan.

A seasoned cast iron or carbon steel skillet has a naturally non-stick coating of burnt-on oil and fat, which cookware geeks call a “patina.” That patina will act as a layer between the burger meat and the pan, keeping it from sticking.

Readers who cook with stainless steel and copper should grease their pans by drizzling 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in them, and applying it onto the bottom and sides of the pan with a paper towel. This creates a barrier between the “sticky” patty and the pan’s bare-steel surface, making it possible to shallow-fry the meat with minimum sticking.

How to grease a stainless steel pan

In Conclusion

We’ve established that butter isn’t the best fat for cooking a burger. Since it has a low smoke point, butter burns quickly—especially if you plan to give it that initial browning over medium-high heat.

However, you can finish cooking your burger with butter to give it a more decadent aroma and sumptuous taste. To do so, turn down the heat to medium after you’ve given your patties that initial sear, and continue cooking them with a knob of butter in your skillet.

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