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Cast iron pan-seared steak and butter - is it OK

I love a great steak, and have recently come close to mastering a steakhouse quality steak. I usually season with salt and pepper or Montreal Steak Seasoning and then top with delicious butter. I generally sear with a bit of canola oil patted onto the surface of the steaks, but thought why not sear with butter. However, I do know that butter has a fairly low smoking point compared to other oils. Would it be OK to pat the steaks with butter or add a few pats to the pan or will just result in burned solids with the high heat of the pan?

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  1. That's the only way I cook steaks in cast iron, with butter. I believe many restaurants do it that way too. It's especially good to tip your pan and get the butter goodness with a spoon, and spoon it over the steaks while cooking.

    6 Replies
    1. re: juliejulez

      I imagine since the cast iron holds heat pretty well that the tipping won't affect cooking time too much. Why is it that there is less concern with butter solids burning with seared steak vs. other recipes cooked at high heat and it seems it's recommended to use a higher smoking point oil?

      1. re: fldhkybnva

        There isn't less concern, there is equal concern, which is why I wouldn't and don't do it. If the pan is hot enough to sear a steak properly it will be more than hot enough to burn the milk solids in the butter almost immediately. Instead, simply brush the steak with a neutral tasting oil like vegetable oil, sear it in a smoking hot, dry pan, then finish the steak with butter once it's cooked.

        My question wouldn't be why not sear with butter, but rather why sear with butter?

        What you could do is sear your steak off using your preferred method, then finish it in a pan of butter on a lower heat while basting all the while as it comes up to temp. This method is called poele (pwa-LAY). I know for certain the Ritz-Carlton Lodge at Reynolds Plantation uses this method as it is where I learned it. However, most steakhouses do not use this method (actually, no top tier steakhouses that I know of do). They, instead, simply broil their steaks and many do finish them with butter.

          1. re: 1POINT21GW

            I don't normally lower the temp of the pan before adding butter - it doesn't burn immediately, just quickly.

            "My question wouldn't be why not sear with butter, but rather why sear with butter?"
            Adding butter right at the end helps even out and deepen the browning of the steak (honestly, I'm not sure exactly how, but it does), and the browned butter is a nice bonus in itself.

            1. re: 1POINT21GW

              1POINT is right on. Your skillet has to be very hot and butter will burn.

            2. re: fldhkybnva

              I've never had a problem with it. Sometimes I even put the cast iron in a 500 degree oven ahead of time, so it's screaming hot. It does create a lot of smoke so either have a good vent fan or open the windows/disconnect the smoke alarm. I'm going to do it this weekend in fact. I will say if your steaks are thicker, like filets, you will want to use the oven to almost finish the cooking and then take them out and do the butter part towards the end.

          2. The problem with using only butter for searing is that if you get the pan hot enough for a good sear, you're gonna burn the butter long before the steak is cooked. Conversely, if the pan is cool enough not to nuke the butter, you're not going to get that great steakhouse style sear.

            Try this instead. Sear in very hot oil as usual. As you are getting close to finishing your cooking (possibly after a stint in the oven if the steak is thick enough to need it), throw a pat of butter in the pan, and baste the steak with a spoon as you finish it. It'll brown but not burn before the steak is done that way. Here is a Gordon Ramsay video where he demonstrates:

            2 Replies
            1. re: cowboyardee

              Wow, I just watched this video and that steak looks amazing, although it seems like it might be a bit too buttery if there is such a thing but definetly will try out this method.

              1. re: cowboyardee

                This is the video inspired us to use butter to finish off the steak. It was one of the best home cooked steaks we've had. The butter added a lot flavor and seemed to increase the unami-ness of the steak.

                Use oil to achieve the sear and finish with butter.

              2. My favorite pan seared steak recipe was from the Dean and DeLuca cookbook. A mixture of butter and olive oil in a screaming hot pan, sear both sides, and finish under the broiler. Made great steaks, but make sure all of your windows are open. I've set off many a smoke alarm with this recipe...

                1. Have you thought of using clarified butter/ghee?

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: Vidute

                    I did consider that, but have never made/used either so was a bit hesitant. Also does anyone top steaks with brown butter? It seems like it would give it a great flavor! Thanks for the replies. I think that my thought that finishing the steak with butter is best still holds, so I guess I'll stick to searing with a bit of canola oil

                    1. re: fldhkybnva

                      My way is to dip or brush the seasoned steak with clarified butter and pan grill. Then brush with more clarified butter before turning.

                      The absolute best steak I've done is to sous vide cook a seasoned steak to 132F internal and then pan or flame brown the exterior the top with brown butter.

                      1. re: fldhkybnva

                        Rather than using butter or any type of oil.....I used reserved fat trimmings from the steak. Render the fat in a hot pan and add your steak. After the steak is finished, you remove the steak to a plate and cover.....during this time you can make your pan sauce and sautee any aromatics or mushrooms....add wine and finish with butter.

                    2. Good steak does not need butter.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        What is your secret to the perfect steak?

                        1. re: fldhkybnva

                          It's no secret.

                          Start with quality beef. At least 2 inches thick. Preferably prime. Season with generous amounts of kosher salt (and pepper if you prefer, I don't).

                          Preheat your oven to about 350-400F

                          Get a CI pan, and get it screaming hot on your stovetop. Sear the steaks on each side for about 1 minute, then finish off in the oven until your desired doneness.

                          Sometimes, I will reverse the process from searing-oven to oven-sear (i.e., "Reverse-Sear"), as I noted here in this previous thread: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/635214

                      2. I agree with most people. Butter is great, but it has a very low smoke point. So if you sear a steak with better, you will badly hurt the butter. If you keep the temperature low, then you won't able to make great steak. So yes, butter is great at the end for finishing the steak.

                        1. Some good advice here. I do need to add that you should get rid of the canola oil. It has no place in cooking.

                          7 Replies
                          1. re: sandylc

                            I don't use canola oil, but why do you think canola oil is bad for cooking?

                            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                              It taste terrible and smells worse. It needs to be ultra processed in order to be safe for consumption. There are arguments on both sides, from what I read, regarding its safety.

                              The fact that it tastes bad is enough for me - it would ruin my steak.

                              1. re: sandylc

                                I have only used it for awhile (like 6 months - 1 year). I didn't particular dislike it, but I have moved toward grapeseed oil. That is ok. I tend to rotate a lot of oil through out my life. Corn oil, peanut oil, vegetable oil, olive oil...etc.

                                1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                  I like most of those oils. I used sunflower oil for a long time before it disappeared; it is now back on a limited basis and I've begun using it again.

                                  1. re: sandylc

                                    I keep refined safflower oil on hand mostly for steaks - no detectable flavor of its own and a very high smoke point.

                              2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                I think it gives off a very fish smell when heated.

                            2. I disagree with the omnipresent calls for a "screaming hot" cast iron pan. Let the raw meat sit on the counter for a half hour. Preheat the pan well, over medium heat - 10 minutes or so. Add a little fat, or not, if your steak is well-marbled. When the first side is brown and releases easily, flip
                              and do the same on the other side, which will not take as long. Then take the pan off the heat if the steak is not more than an inch thick, cover and let rest for 15 min for medium-rare. If it's a thicker steak, shut off the burner but leave the covered pan on it, or put it in a medium oven, keeping track of the temp depending on desired degree of doneness. Rest it on the counter when it's 10 degrees under your goal temp. You do not need to incinerate the outside of the meat, which can easily happen with an over-hot pan.

                              9 Replies
                              1. re: greygarious

                                That sounds really right on. I have recently begun cooking steaks in CI rather than on the charcoal grill, as even natural hardwood charcoal is having adverse effects on our digestive systems. I'm finding that I like it better.

                                1. re: greygarious

                                  I like a nice crust on my steaks. Sounds like you don't.

                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                    I like a brown crust all over, which is why I prefer a flat cast iron frying pan to a grill. One great big "grill mark"! But I want it to taste of caramelized proteins and the meat sugar, not charcoal bitterness. Not that every piece of meat cooked in a "screaming hot" pan will inevitably scorch, but it happens. The risk can be avoided by more controlled heat.

                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                      I've been using the method greygarious describes recently and I find that cast iron+butter+medium heat+a longer cook time creates an excellent crust on the outside of my steak - I wouldn't have thought it possible, but it really works. There is a little more of the grey ring issue than you would get with a high-heat sear+low oven, but otherwise the steaks turn out quite well.

                                      1. re: biondanonima

                                        My problem is I just don't like butter on anything, much less on a good piece of red meat.

                                        The only time I use butter is in baked goods.

                                        1. re: ipsedixit

                                          <My problem is I just don't like butter on anything>


                                          1. re: ipsedixit

                                            I think my head just exploded. Mom, is that you? (She's the only person I've EVER met that doesn't like butter).

                                            1. re: ipsedixit

                                              I have to admit that I was never a big butter fan and didn't "get it" until I started using European-style butter and now I'm hooked.

                                              1. re: fldhkybnva

                                                time for the next step....actual european butter!

                                      2. I am with the "why butter" people. Beef fat itself has plenty of flavor, and very high smoke point.

                                        I use a cast iron pan. While preheating the pan, I am rendering some of the fat on the side of the steak. That provides more than enough fat to alleviate sticking, and gets that fat cap crispy. I don't want any more fat in the pan than a thin film; more fat is more spatters to clean up.

                                        Why baste with butter when I can flip the steak every 30 seconds? I'll baste with butter for a side of fish, that makes sense. Fish meat is too delicate to be flipped repeatedly, but steaks are fine. The point of basting is to cook from the top as well as the bottom, for a more even doneness. Flipping repeatedly gives a great sear AND very even cooking.

                                        If you are making sirloin or tenderloin (or other lean) steaks, drop a small amount of butter in at the end.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: jaykayen

                                          I flip often and finish with butter. No reason you can't do both. The basting part is less critical to the end result, and mainly I do it to make sure the steak gets plenty of coverage and flavor from the oil/butter mixture.

                                          There are two upsides of using more than a bare slick of oil in the pan, btw - it generally helps to provide a more even sear, and it also stores some heat of its own, helping to make for a quicker sear and thus more even cooking if you pan roast or use some other more gentle method of cooking the steak to doneness.

                                          1. re: cowboyardee

                                            It is the spattering mess that is my biggest concern when I don't have someone else to clean up after me, as well as taking a spatter to the face! If the cook likes the flavor of butter on steak, why not?

                                            You are right, OP did not mention basting; that was someone else.

                                        2. Great, perhaps I will pick up some grapeseed oil or clarify some butter this evening. Anyone ever use coconut oil?

                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: fldhkybnva

                                            Coconut oil smells very strongly of itself, would not use.

                                            1. re: jaykayen

                                              OK, thanks. I assumed it had it's own flavor but wasn't sure.

                                              1. re: fldhkybnva

                                                Very strong indeed, but it does not mean you may not like. I don't.

                                          2. You could add some olive oil with your butter, this will make it less likely to smoke.

                                            1. I use Ghee for steaks to swim in.

                                              1. I've always sort of thought that using butter with beef was "cheating".
                                                In general, I tend to use butter only when I think I've over cooked the meat and I'm trying to "save" it, or when I'm forced to use a cut that I consider to be of lower quality.

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: Bryan Pepperseed

                                                  Agreed, Bryan. Butter would only need to be added if the marbling or fat-level in the steak isn't enough, or if the steak has been dried out for whatever reason.