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I have always wondered why people put oil or butter in a pan before browning ground beef. It doesn't make sense since you end up having to drain the grease in the end anyways. What is the purpose of the oil or butter? Is it used for pans that are not non-stick? Flavor?

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Maybe I've been doing it wrong all these years, but I cannot remember a single time when I've ever used another fat to brown ground beef. The only thing I ever add to the pan at the same time is onion. –  Aaronut Dec 14 '10 at 4:03
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I have always grown up just putting the beef directly in the pan as well. It wasn't until a few years ago while watching T.V. that I saw some chefs add oil to the pan before the beef. I have been confused ever since. –  duchessofstokesay Dec 14 '10 at 14:55
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Maybe they're using the extra-lean stuff and it's rendering hardly any fat by itself? –  Aaronut Dec 14 '10 at 17:06
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3 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Transfer of heat. First you need a hot pan (sprinkle some drops of water on the pan, it should sizzle). Then you add a drop of oil and swirl it around. When the oil forms a striated pattern, it's hot. Then you put the meat in.

The hot oil helps to transfer heat from the bottom of the pan to the meat. You only need a spoonful of oil.

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Junkie But does this actually benefit the beef flavor-wise or is it solely for better heat distribution? –  duchessofstokesay Dec 14 '10 at 14:56
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Depending on the oil / butter it adds flavor. However read the latest article from Harold McGee on how heat influences oil flavor. nytimes.com/2010/11/17/dining/17curious.html?_r=1 –  BaffledCook Dec 16 '10 at 18:17
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If the ground beef is very lean then adding a small amount of cooking oil to the pan is necessary. Otherwise, ultra-lean ground beef will burn and stick to the pan before the center of your burger is even done. Additionally the burger would be extremely dry and unappetizing when cooked.

After it is done squeeze out excessive grease with napkins or paper towels before consuming.

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Another reason people put butter in the pan because the milk solids in the butter (which separate when the butter melts) contribute positively to the "browning" of meat. So, if you're looking to get a nice brown color on a steak, butter in the pan will help.

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If you need butter to help brown a steak, your pan is not hot enough before the meat goes in. When your pan is at the temperatures required to easily cause the Maillard reaction, it's far too hot for butter, as the butter would burn. –  bikeboy389 Dec 17 '10 at 20:43
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