Awareness about hydrogenated oils and transfats gave margarine a little bit of a black eye. Though new food laws in the United States have since made it illegal to use transfats in margarine, which has helped it to be reinvented as a possible butter alternative for a lot of things. This includes using it for flavoring and/or lubricant when grilling.
To understand which is better for grilling butter or margarine, we’re going to have to take a little bit of a closer look at the food science behind each, as well as how to use them best.
The Smoke Point of Butter & Margarine
One of the problems with using butter for grilling is that it has a low smoke point just below 350 degrees. This means butter can start to burn when grilling something like a steak over a high-heat flame or even on a gas griddle top.
However, margarine is typically made from unsaturated vegetable oil. This gives it a smoke point of around 450 degrees, which makes it more forgiving as a lubricant for high-heat grilling and griddle frying.
The Flavor of Bugger Vs Margarine
One of the biggest complaints about using margarine for grilling is that it doesn’t bring a lot of flavor to the equation. At the same time, if you drive the temperature of margarine more than 50 degrees over its smoke point, it can also polymerize and turn into a sticky, bitter, and unappealing substance. Especially if you’re using it on a very hot griddle.
Butter on the other hand is prized for its depth of flavor as well as its ability to be used as a lubricant and flavor-enhancing ingredient. It’s much beloved for its ability to enhance the umami richness of seared steaks and chops.
Ultimately, 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.
The Lubricating Properties of Butter & Margarine
The vegetable oil base and high smoke point of margarine arguably make it a better lubricant for keeping steak, chops, and other lean meats from sticking to the grill. Though it’s the risk of polymerizing into a black tar-like substance makes it a poor choice for high-heat searing on a gas griddle.
The average stick of butter has around 18 to 20% water content, which can affect its ability to act as a lubricant on a grill surface. Though once the water has evaporated away, its lubricating powers are on on-par with the vegetable oil component of margarine.
Though here again, there’s a risk of butter burning once the surface temperature gets over the 350-degree mark. It might be okay for bone-in cuts of chicken and other types of meat that need slow, low-temperature heat to properly cook through.
Clarifying Butter for the Grill & Griddle
One of the ways to tap into the flavor and lubricating potential of butter for use on a grill and griddle is to clarify it. This is a process of slowly melting it and warming it over low heat. This gives it the time the butter needs to evaporate the trace water content as well as to break down the residual milk solids.
You can do this by putting a stick or two of butter in a small sauce pot. Then simmering it at a target temperature of 250 to 270 degrees. Skim off any foam that develops on the surface, and spoon away any little brown bits from the bottom. After 15 to 20 minutes you can strain it through a fine mesh sieve to catch any other milk solids.
The resulting clarified butter is known as ghee, which has most of the flavor of traditional butter. However, it also has a new smoke point of up to 465 degrees, which makes it superior to margarine as a lubricant and for flavoring grilled food.
Alternatives to Butter for Lubricating Grilled Meat
Traditional butter isn’t an ideal lubricant for grilling at high heat temperatures of over 350 to 375 degrees. If you’re just looking for a butter-like lubricant to keep a lean piece of meat from sticking to the grill grates, margarine could be on the table as well as some other oils such as:
- Clarified Butter or Ghee
- Canola Oil
- Refined Coconut Oil
- Vegetable Oil
- Softened Margarine
- Vegetable Shortening
How to Use Butter for Grilling
There’s no doubt that butter helps bring out the rich, fatty flavors of most grilled foods. Though you have to be mindful not to burn it over high heat. Of course, making clarified ghee is help you use a form of butter to lubricate sticky grill grates. Yet it doesn’t have butter’s rich, dairy flavor.
To use butter to bring out the flavor of grilled meats it helps to think of it as a finishing ingredient. You can use softened margarine, ghee, or some other type of neutral-flavored oil with a high smoke point, like canola oil to lubricate the grill grates.
Apply the oil moments before you lay your steak or some other lean cut of meat down. A light glaze of oil can then be applied to the meat seconds before you flip it. This will keep the other side from sticking, while also providing a little bit of a flare for enhanced searing.
When the meat is about a minute away from being done, lay a big pat of high-quality butter right on top of it. This will give it time to melt onto the surface of the meat without burning over hot, direct flames.
Then remove the meat from the flames and lightly tent it with some heavy-duty aluminum foil. This will allow the melted butter to permeate down into the meat, while the meat rests, allowing the natural juices to redistribute back into the meat fibers.
The Best Butter for Grilling
Gourmet grocery stores sometimes have high-end butter available, but if you’re looking for the best butter or ghee for grilling, and you don’t want to make it yourself, your best bet is to search online.