Complex nutty flavors and an epic crust make butter basted steak one of the most luxurious ways to enjoy your beef.
I’ve often mused that my “death row meal” would be either a perfect ribeye steak, or a whole loaf of sourdough with amazing French butter. In many ways, butter basted steak is a way to solve this conundrum, because it brings together the hearty satisfaction of a steak with the sumptuous richness of great butter. You may have seen chefs use this technique, spooning the butter over the steak in a sizzling frenzy. Just thinking about it can be drool inducing. But for many folks, the attempts at recreating this in their own kitchens aren’t always successful. Either the steak is overcooked, or the surface looks more like an underwhelming greasy mess than a golden brown crust.
I’m going to share my technique for butter basting steak, with a few key principles that will have you searing like a boss in no time.
Temperature is key to butter basting a steak.
It’s not hard to actually achieve a crust on your steak when butter basting. The complicated part is how to achieve that crust AND keep your steak perfectly cooked on the inside. The key to nailing both internal temp and golden brown goodness is high temperatures. Your pan needs to be smoking hot for the duration of the cook, and if you’re inside this probably means setting most of your smoke detectors off. That’s why it’s so easy for restaurant kitchens to nail this – they have extremely powerful burners that keep the pans scorching hot, and even more powerful ventilation systems. We’re not so lucky in our own homes. One way you can get around this is to use a charcoal grill as the heat source. You’ll be able to get smokin’ hot temps, while keeping the actual smoke outdoors.
Temperature is also the key to making sure the butter is browning your steak, instead of softening the crust. Because butter has such high water content, you want it to be aggressively bubbling way so the water is actively evaporating. So when you spoon it over your steak, you’re getting all the fat instead of just hot moisture. That’s the KEY difference to building a crust with the maillard reaction (the thing that turns steak golden brown and delicious), versus making your surface soggy.
Perfect butter basted steak is flipped often, not once.
It’s simple if you think about it. Leaving a steak on one side for extended time will overcook it on that side. Flipping your steak often, as long as your pan is HOT, will build crust without overcooking the middle. Even better, you avoid that dreaded grey band and get more of the perfect medium rare you seek. To help maintain those crucial high temps, it’s best to choose a large pan, where you can flip the steak on to a new section (ie, not right onto the spot it was just cooking). The area of the pan without the steak will have a hotter surface temp. Every bit helps!
Add you butter last to avoid burning.
The mistake most people make is trying to cook in butter from the start. The problem with this is two fold. First, the warmish butter is only going to make things soggy (for reasons outlined above). Second, by the time your steak is ready the butter will have moved past browned and onto burnt, creating undesirable bitter flavors. Instead, start cooking your steak in the bare pan until it’s about 20-30 degrees from your desired doneness, THEN add the butter. It will sizzle right away and you’ll create the ideal basting situation.
Essential equipment for butter basted steak:
- A good skillet to help maintain high temps. Cast iron or carbon steel is perfect. I use a Butterpat skillet and I highly recommend them, even more than my vintage cast iron.
- Use quality butter. European and cultured butters often have a slightly higher fat percentage, and that’s a good thing (so they actually have flavor, not merely a greasy mouthfeel). Don’t buy the cheap stuff – your steak wasn’t cheap, your other ingredients shouldn’t be cheap either.
- If you do this on a grill, DO NOT try this without a pan (yes, I’ve seen it). Pouring butter onto steak on a live grill will lead to a fire. It’s not rocket science.
- You MUST have a quality thermometer. You will need this to check EXACTLY when your steak is at the correct doneness. Here’s the guide: