Why You Should Flavor Your Butter Instead Of Your Steak

Many people would likely name steak as their ideal last meal. If we had to pinpoint one reason why, it would likely be down to the Maillard reaction, which is an essential step in cooking the perfect steak. The Maillard reaction, or browning process, is the secret behind many of our favorite food experiences, such as the crispy crust on seared or grilled meats, the aroma of perfectly caramelized fried onions, and the richness of roasted coffee beans, as Science of Cooking explains.

It's no news to carnivores that adding basting a steak with butter makes it taste even better, but do you know the technical reason why? Butter actually helps to enhance the Maillard reaction in a searing steak. According to Serious Eats, the proteins in the hot butter will quickly cook and add color to any pale areas of the steak when spooned over the top, resulting in a flavorful, golden-brown crust. Plus, since butter is mostly fat, it helps to keep the meat moist and prevent it from drying out. Just remember to first sear your steak in oil that has a high smoke point before adding the butter toward the end of the cooking process. This will prevent the butter from burning and adding any bitterness to the meat. 

It's no wonder why chefs the world over swear by adding a healthy pat of butter to their favorite cuts of steak. This common ingredient has the ability to transform ordinary beef into succulent, restaurant-worthy steaks — especially if you infuse it with a little extra flavor.

Seasoning the butter prevents any ingredients from burning

When cooking a steak, is it best to season the meat itself, or is there a better way? Adam Ragusea insisted on YouTube that seasoning the butter you're using to baste the steak is a better way to add flavor to your meat. He loves the flavor of garlic with steak but makes the point that if he were to marinate the meat with minced cloves, they would burn as soon as the steak hit the grill. Instead, he slathers the steaks with large spoonfuls of garlic butter when they're nearly finished. This way, the residual heat cooks the garlic to the right level and melts the butter, which seeps through the meat as it rests.

Plus, by flavoring the butter instead of the steak, you can more easily control the seasonings that are introduced to your meat — as you can always taste test the butter on a piece of bread. You can't go wrong with a mix of softened butter, salt and pepper, fresh herbs, dried spices, and/or citrus zest when whipping up the perfect steak butter. This simple garlic butter recipe is a good place to start.

This isn't to say that you shouldn't still season your steak. Samin Nosrat swears by salting meat in advance, as this allows the salt to permeate the steak and flavor it from the inside out. Even Ragusea still sprinkles his steaks with salt before they hit the grill. But if you're adding any other flavorings to your ribeye or filet mignon — such as garlic or herbs — add them to butter so they don't burn in the pan.

The best ways to flavor your steak butter

As you might expect, the options are limitless when it comes to flavoring your steak butter. You're essentially making a type of compound butter, which is just fancy speak for butter combined with any kind of sweet or savory ingredients you like. 

Besides garlic and herbs, another great flavoring for your steak could be Chianti butter, per What's Cookin' Italian Style Cuisine. Red wine and red meat are a classic pairing, so why not allow the acidity of some Tuscan wine to complement the richness of your steak butter? For Southwestern-inspired flavors, barbecue expert Jess Pryles' ancho chile and lime butter packs a smoky yet bright punch, while her charred scallion butter is perfect for those who love sweet and savory combinations. Another technique is to take inspiration from tried-and-tested steak sauces, like the Dijon mustard in Diane sauce or the shallots and peppercorns in au poivre sauce (via Great British Chefs).

Clearly, you can make up your own ideas for steak butter. Choosing ingredients that you personally love will make your finished meal all the more suited to your tastebuds. Just remember that when it comes to quality steak, simplicity almost always wins. Your steak butter doesn't need to have a long ingredients list — just a few flavorful things to infuse your steak with aromatic goodness.