There’s no need to extol the virtues of a fantastic steak. Whether you eat it simply because it tastes wonderful, or you also consider its health benefits, beef is one of the world’s most loved main dishes. If you eat quite a lot of steak, you may find yourself in the position you can’t admit and no one wants to hear about—boredom. The cure: the humble stick of butter. This article explains how to take your steak to the next level with different butter toppings, and focuses on principles you can tailor to your own tastes and creativity. 

In the past we have written about how you can look like a Greek God by eating steak and eggs every day, covering Vince Gironda’s ‘Maximum Definition’ diet.

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Why Butter is The Best Steak Topping

Steak and butter: a match made in heaven
Steak and butter: a match made in heaven

Butter: Culinary Basics

I’ll presume the reader is familiar with the health benefits of butter, so here we’ll turn our attention to the culinary and chemical aspects of butter. 

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Butter is considered an emulsion (a suspension or mixture of two or more liquids that are normally immiscible) of fat, water, and milk solids. Conventional vinaigrette salad dressings and cream are other examples of emulsions. Butter in particular is a water-in-oil emulsion, meaning that tiny droplets of water are enclosed in fat globules; the opposite is an oil-in-water emulsion such as cream. 

Butter is largely saturated fat (at least 80% in the United States), though premium butters such as Irish butter may contain between 82% and 86% fat. The remainder is water, lactose, and milk proteins. The more fat in butter, the slower it melts. 

When you’re in the grocery store, you have a choice between unsalted and salted butter. Salted butter will contain (in the United States) between 1.6% and 2.5% salt, depending on the brand. Most professional chefs and food chemists will not recommend salted butter for any use, for a variety of reasons. The most pertinent one for our purposes is that salted butter contains more water by weight than unsalted butter, which is undesirable. We can add our own salt as we see fit, and can control the amount. Purchase unsalted butter. 

Butter behaves very differently at different temperatures, and we’ll be concerned with its different forms to create our catalog of buttery steak toppings. At 40F, the butter is cold. We won’t want it at this temperature; this is more for baking pastry and pie crusts. By 60-65F the butter is softened. If you don’t want to take the butter’s temperature, softened butter will have a fair amount of give to it with a light press of the thumb. This will be the state we’ll use when we make compound butters. At 90-95F, the butter is melted, which is what will happen if you just put a pad of butter on top of a resting steak. 

At 200-212F you’ve clarified the butter; that is, the water has evaporated (see why we don’t want extra water now?) and you can skim off milk solids if you want. At this stage, butter is used for sautéing or frying. My personal favorite state of butter is at 245F: browned butter. Here the lactose and proteins in the butter will undergo the famous Maillard reaction and take on an irresistible nutty flavor and handsome brown color. If you keep going, you can make ghee once the butter hits 250F, which, after further minimal processing, is a shelf-stable fat with a very high smoke point and is fantastic for frying. Consider this a good substitute for seed and vegetable oils.

Our focus is on using softened and browned butter to make a variety of steak toppings. We’ll first focus on browned butter, then discuss compound butters made with softened butter. 

Browned Butter

Browned butter is deceptively simple to make: heat the butter until it takes on the nutty aroma and characteristic brown color. However, from personal experience, let me elaborate with some tips.

  • Do not use a dark nonstick pan for browning the butter. The dark bottom makes it too hard to tell if your butter is browned or burnt (and that line can be crossed very suddenly.) Use a small (6-8 inch) aluminum or copper pan. 
  • Be patient and brown it over low to medium low heat. Too high and you’ll scorch the proteins and lactose. 
  • Swirl the pan over the heat almost constantly. You want the butter to heat and brown evenly. 
  • You’re done right as you see those tasty little brown flecks start to gather at the bottom of the pan. Quickly turn off the heat and let it sit for a few seconds to finish. (Note: if you have an electric stove, remove from heat immediately. The coils take too long to cool down and can burn your butter.)

While browned butter is delightful in its pure form, we have many other flavor options we can build using this foundation.

Salts

There’s so much more to cooking with salt than your ordinary table iodized NaCl. 

  • For a particular treat, sprinkle a pinch to taste of black truffle salt in your butter once it’s melted, and brown the butter with this salt. 
  • If you’re interested in a smokier flavor, there are huge varieties of wood-smoked salts out there. I’m quite fond of the selection at the Spice and Tea Exchange in Portland, OR, and you can place online orders. Whiskey Oak, a company based in San Jose, CA, has the most unique smoked salt I’ve ever tasted, and you only need a small pinch. 
  • A high-quality white flake finishing salt is also worth the investment. Sprinkle this sparingly on the steak after you’ve drizzled your browned butter over it. 
  • Explore around for other flavored salts as well. There are many exotic varieties to suit anyone’s taste. 

In general, a finishing salt is sprinkled on after the butter is applied to the steak. Otherwise, you can put the salt in the melted butter as you brown it. I don’t recommend kosher salt in your steak topping. If you want a rub on your steak prior to cooking, this is the place for kosher salt. 

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Peppers and Herbs

Here I’ll divide peppers and herbs into two classes: blooming and finishing. Cook’s Illustrated has a fantastic article on the science behind blooming certain herbs and peppers in fat. Long story short, the aromatic compounds in some herbs and spices are fat-soluble, which means that cooking these herbs and peppers in the butter as you brown it will release more of these delicious flavor compounds, while using a fraction of the amount.

Capsaicin (the compound that makes peppers hot) is fat soluble, so consider blooming red pepper flakes in your browned butter for some extra heat. Just use a very small pinch. Herbs that take well to this treatment are thyme (particularly fresh, though dried thyme performs reasonably well), rosemary (dried or fresh), and sage (bruise or chop the sage first). 

Finishing herbs are more delicate, and the heat actually destroys their flavor compounds. If you want to top your steak with any variety of parsley or cilantro, add these after you pour the butter onto the steak, or save these for compound butters.

Compound Butters

Compound butters mix in various aromatic additions with softened butter. These toppings are put on top of the steak after it’s pulled from the heat, and just prior to serving. You can roll these compound butters into a log and freeze for future use. 

If you forgot until too late to pull the butter from the fridge to soften, my favorite trick I’ve picked up is “percussive softening” (it really works!). Put some plastic wrap over the butter stick, then use the flat end of a meat tenderizer and pound it until it softens. This really does raise the temperature of cold butter to the softened state; I’ve used this more often than I should admit. 

The base of a compound butter is a stick of whipped softened butter (you can use a stand mixer or fork). From here you can try one of the following:

  • Chive-Lemon: Grate 2 tsp lemon zest and combine in the bowl of whipped butter with 1/4 tsp pepper, 1/4 c. minced fresh chives, and 4 tsp lemon juice.
  • Parsley-Lemon: Substitute the parsley for chives. Omit pepper.
  • Cilantro-Chipotle: Combine 2 tsp minced canned chipotle chiles, 4 tsp. minced fresh cilantro, 2 minced garlic cloves, 2 tsp. grated lime zest, and 2 tsp. honey (optional). Add this to the softened whipped butter.

Conclusion and Notes

This article is just meant to whet your creative appetites for buttery steak toppings.  The sky is the limit here. The main things to take away are

  • The solubility and heat-tolerance of your aromatics. If your desired aromatic is heat tolerant and/or soluble in fat, throw it in the browned butter for blooming. If the aromatic is not heat tolerance, either add it as a finish or make a compound butter with it.
  • Brown the butter relatively slowly in an aluminum or copper pan. You need to be able to see the butter as it browns.
  • Do not buy salted butter. Buy fancy finishing and smoked salts instead. 

As a final note, the astute reader will notice that I’ve omitted any mention of garlic. This was intentional on my part, to avoid drawing out an already long article. Garlic is one of the most versatile aromatics in the culinary world, and deserves its own article. There are simply too many different ways to use garlic to wrap it only in this butter one. For something very quick, mince garlic and bloom it in some browned butter. 

May all your steaks be as rare as you are. 

If you’d like dozens of tasty recipes, purchase our nutrition bundle that contains an illustrated cookbook here.

A video detailing how to cook your steaks

On the author: Rachel Traylor developed a love for cooking more than a decade ago when she got hungry and resolved to eat something besides beans and ramen through early adulthood. She’s a competitive swimmer and volunteer fire/rescue personnel. You can find her other writing at www.themathcitadel.com

References

  1. Bomze, E. Cooking with Butter. Cook’s Illustrated, No. 168 (2021) pp. 16-18
  2. Crosby, G. et al. Cook’s Science. (2016) Penguin Random House.
  3. America’s Test Kitchen editors. Meat Illustrated. (2020) Penguin Random House
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