Do You Need Oil to Sear a Steak?

Is oil really necessary for searing steak? Find out the answer—and more—in our latest blog post.

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Howdy, grillers. I want to address a question I get asked a lot when it comes to searing steak in a skillet: do you really need cooking oil or not?

Before I give you my take, I want to set the record straight. I’m no culinary professional, so take my words with a grain of salt. But I do know a thing or two about searing a good steak in a pan. Because when the weather isn’t conductive to grilling, I’ll sear my steak in a pan—with that nice, crispy crust and a juicy, pink center.

A lot of folks wonder if you need oil to get that nice sear in the first place. And the long answer short is that oil does help with the process, but it isn’t the be-all and end-all.

In fact, there are ways to get a great sear on a steak without using any oil at all.

Why Sear Steak With Oil

Alright, what exactly does oil do when you’re pan-searing steak?

For starters, it helps create a barrier between the pan and the steak. This is helpful if you’re using a stainless steel pan, as it can help to prevent the steak from sticking and tearing up when you try to flip it.

But that’s not all. And many a home cook, me included, like to sear their steak in a heavy-bottomed, thick-walled cast iron skillet or carbon steel pan. So, what does oil do then?

The cooking oil heats up and helps to transfer heat to the steak more efficiently, allowing the meat to cook quickly and evenly. In other words, adding a little bit of oil can help you achieve that perfect sear on your steak.

Who doesn’t love a steak like that?

How Much Oil to Add

We’ve gone over the merits of adding oil to the pan, and we know it helps conduct heat better and sear the steak more evenly. But I know the question that’s plaguing you next: “Sammy, how much oil should you add to the pan when you’re searing it?”

As a general rule, you’ll want to add one to three dollops of oil to the pan, then lift the pan and give it a good swirl so the oil coats the cooking surface nice and evenly. But don’t add too much of it, because you can end up shallow-frying the steak like you would cook up a cutlet instead of giving it a good sear.

What is a dollop of oil, I heard you asking?

In my book, a dollop of oil is the same as a teaspoon of oil, give or take. The bigger the pan, the more oil you need to add. A dollop or two will do in an 8 or 10-inch pan. On a bigger, 12 to 14-inch pan, you’ll need to add two or three dollops. Remember to lift the pan and swirl the oil around.

What oil you use is as important as how much oil you’re using.

You’ll want a flavorless cooking oil with a high smoke point. It’s the steak that should be smoking, not the oil. Among my favorite oils to use are avocado oil, canola oil, clarified butter (ghee), sunflower oil, and rice bran oil.

Searing Steak Without Oil

A bit of oil can go a long way in helping to create that sear.

But if you’ve got a steak that’s fatty and well marbled, you might not need to use any oil at all. That’s right, folks, you can get a great sear on a steak without adding a single drop of oil to the pan.

The intramuscular fat will melt during the sear, and the steak will brown in its own succulent juices. As we already touched on, the fat will help transfer heat to the steak more efficiently, giving you that deliciously seared crust we love.

Here’s a little tip to help you do this right: Preheat the pan for a few minutes over medium-high heat. This will help to get the pan nice and hot, which is key to browning the meat and forming the crust.

This works best in a cast iron skillet or grill pan. You want a vessel that’s heavy in the hand and sounds dense when you knock on it because it’s best at heating up and transferring that heat to the crust.

In Conclusion

And there you have it. I hope this post has helped clear up any confusion you might have had about whether or not you need cooking oil when searing steak in a skillet.

Oil can certainly help with the process, but it isn’t a must. If you’ve got a well-marbled steak that’s rich in fat, you might not need to use any oil at all to get a great sear. And if you do decide to use oil, just be sure to add the right amount for your pan.

By Sammy Steen

Sammy, Barbehow's editor, is a die-hard carnivore, barbecue whisperer, and self-proclaimed master of the grill.

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