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Can you use margarine instead of butter for steak? (Explained)

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Can You Use Margarine Instead of Butter for Steak

Margarine got a little bit of a black eye on its reputation when low-quality versions were revealed to have unhealthy trans fats. Since high-quality versions have been reinvented without the trans fats to the point of being a handy butter alternative for a lot of things, including cooking steak.

Butter has a low smoke point just below 350 degrees, which means it can burn when cooking a steak over high heat. Though high-quality margarine made from unsaturated vegetable oil can have a smoke point of around 450 degrees.

The problem with margarine is that it doesn’t bring a lot of flavor to the equation. In the wrong conditions, it can also polymerize and burn, which can bring its own unpleasant flavors to the party. 

This means that margarine can be a handy alternative to butter when you want to sear your steak on a grill. Though it’s not as appealing when it comes to finishing a fully cooked steak to add extra richness and flavor. 

Should You Use Margarine Instead of Butter for Steak?

You should only really use margarine as a lubricant to keep your steak from sticking to the grill. It has a higher smoke point than butter and is less likely to burn

However, when it comes to finishing a steak, by adding a little something in the last 30 seconds or so before taking it off the grill, you should stay away from margarine altogether. 

Melting a pat of butter on the top of the steak right as it’s about to come off the grill will give it superior richness and flavor in a way that even the best margarine can’t hope to compete with. 

When You Would Need to Use Margarine Instead of Butter for Steak

If your grill has scuffed stainless steel or chrome-plated grates that are known for being extra-sticky, margarine is the better option to lubricate the surface of a steak to help it release easily. The higher smoke point means the margarine won’t burn as easily as butter. 

Though the tables are turned when it comes to finishing for flavor and richness, where a little melted butter on top of a fully cooked steak still reigns supreme. 

What the Difference Between Margarine and Butter Really Is

While they might look similar, and sometimes taste similar, there are some serious differences between butter and margarine. 

Butter is a true dairy product and brings a natural richness that taps into our sense memory. Though on its own butter has a relatively low smoke point, which means it can burn when you use it as lubrication for searing a steak.

Margarine is made from processed vegetable oil and doesn’t have the same rich flavor on its own. Yet it has a high smoke point, which makes it a great lubricant for searing a steak.

The problem comes in the complex hydrocarbon chains and water when they are heated on their own for too long. Once they let off some steam, in a frying pan or a similar vessel without drainage these hydrocarbons tend to polymerize into a black, bitter substance. 

So, if you’re planning to sear a steak for more than a few seconds in a cast iron frying pan or griddle, it’s better to stay away from both margarine and butter. 

Instead, try to use a high smoke point, pure oil like canola, which won’t burn and is far less likely to polymerize in the time it takes to cook a typical steak

The Difference in Possible Taste Afterwards

The relatively low smoke point of butter means it’s more likely to burn when you grill it over high heat. As a lubricant to keep a steak from sticking to the grill grates it’s more likely to leave a bitter burned flavor behind.

Margarine doesn’t affect the flavor of a steak on the grill, as it melts and drips off when used as a lubricant. However, if you bring margarine to a hot frying pan, the hydrocarbons will likely polymerize into a black tar-like substance that is unappealing bitter.

If you are obsessed with adding the rich flavor of butter, you might want to try making clarified butter. It’s essentially butter that’s essentially been simmered to remove the water and change

Final Thoughts

I appreciate the higher smoke point that margarine brings to the equation when I need to lubricate a steak against sticking to the grill grates. Though that’s honestly about my limit of where I’ll use margarine for a steak or any other high-value piece of meat. 

The vegetable oil and other ingredients in margarine have an inferior flavor compared to butter. Worse still on the surface of a flat vessel like a frying pan, margarine can polymerize into a black, bitter tar that has no business being on a steak.

Instead, it might help to use margarine and butter as a one-two combination. You can use a light amount of margarine on the surface of the steak to lubricate the meat against sticking. 

The margarine will melt away before it has a chance to burn, while still helping the steak to release cleanly. Then, after the last flip, you can gently lay a thick pat of butter on the top of the steak to melt, adding richness and delightful butter flavor without burning to bitterness.