You probably already know enough to know that house fires are absolutely devastating, and among the most common catastrophes that can befall people.
You may also know that most house fires start in or around the kitchen. It makes sense, high heat, flammable substances, one mishap or mistake and the rest is history.
How about something as basic and ubiquitous as butter? Is butter flammable?
No, butter is not flammable because it has too much water. However, if overcooked butter can potentially catch fire once the water evaporates.
Everyone knows that you can burn butter, and that’s true, but that really refers to ruining the butter from overheating and cooking it too long.
That said, it is possible to boil away the water in butter and leave behind fat which can potentially catch fire in certain circumstances, although this is unlikely.
Keep reading and I’ll tell you everything else you need to know about it.
Is Butter Combustible?
No, it isn’t. Concerning flammable materials, it’s essential to understand the difference between flammable and combustible.
Flammable substances can ignite easily at or near room temperatures, while combustible ones require higher temperatures to catch fire.
Butter doesn’t fall into either of these categories since it primarily consists of fat and water, neither of which are inherently fire-friendly, you might say.
While butter can melt, of course, and will even brown at high temperatures, it does not have the necessary properties to be classified as truly combustible. Therefore, it isn’t considered a fire hazard in normal circumstances.
Does Butter Ignite at Any Temperature?
Potentially. While butter is not generally considered flammable, it can ignite under certain conditions. The flashpoint, or the lowest temperature at which a substance can vaporize to form an ignitable mixture in air, of butter is around 350 °F.
However, this assumes that the water content of the butter has already evaporated, leaving only the fats behind.
When heated beyond this point, butter can potentially ignite. It’s worth noting that this isn’t a typical occurrence and usually requires prolonged exposure to intense heat.
Does Butter React with High Temperature?
Yes, it does. Butter reacts with high temperatures by in several distinct stages. Initially, as butter is exposed to heat, it begins to melt, transforming from a solid to a liquid state.
As the temperature continues to rise, it starts to break down into its constituent components: water, milk solids, and fat. The milk solids can then brown, imparting a nutty flavor popular in some culinary applications.
However, if the heat intensifies further, these same solids can start to burn, giving off an unpleasant smell and taste.
In even more extreme heat, with the water content fully evaporated and continued exposure to high heat, the remaining fats can catch fire.
When Butter Still Contains Water it Will Not Ignite
Butter is a mixture of fat and water. Therefore, when it’s in a solid or semi-solid state, such as when it’s just been removed from the refrigerator, it won’t ignite.
This is because the water content in the butter dramatically reduces its ability to catch fire. Water has high heat capacity and must be entirely evaporated before the butter’s fats can reach their ignition point.
As such, the presence of water in butter acts as a natural fire retardant, you might say.
Is Salted Butter Flammable?
Yes. While salted butter isn’t typically classified as flammable as detailed above, it does have the potential to catch fire under those same certain conditions.
The presence of salt does not significantly impact its combustion properties. But again, this usually occurs only at high sustained temperatures and is not a common occurrence in everyday cooking.
Is Unsalted Butter Flammable?
Yes. Much like its salted counterpart, unsalted butter is likewise not inherently flammable. But it too can catch fire when subjected to high heat over an extended period.
Once again, this is highly unlikely to occur in daily use if you’re paying attention at all to what you’re doing at the stove.
Caution: Butter Can Ignite Easily When Sprayed
There’s one instance where butter can ignite a lot more easily than normal.
While solid or liquid butter isn’t flammable, this notable exception occurs when butter is aerosolized, as in the form of spray butter or when using a spritzer with melted butter.
Most misted liquids allow for more efficient heat transfer and thusly easier ignition.
This means that the tiny droplets of butter can reach their ignition point much faster than a solid or bulk liquid, and subsequently ignite their tiny neighboring droplets in a huge chain reaction.
Another negative outcome occurs from propellants used in mass-produced butter sprays and cooking sprays: these pressurized chemicals might themselves be highly flammable even if the butter they “carry” is not!
Consequently, using spray butter of any kind near any potential source of ignition can pose a serious fire hazard.
Exercise caution when spraying butter, particularly around open flames or hot surfaces. If you pre-heat your pans, be extra careful!
Will Butter Make a Fire Worse?
No. Butter is unlikely to exacerbate a fire. The high water content and low flash point make it a poor fuel source.
In fact, the water in butter tends to evaporate when exposed to heat, which can help to cool down the immediate area and potentially slow or stop the spread a very small fire.
But don’t get things too twisted: throwing butter into an existing fire is not a recommended method of fire suppression and could lead to unpredictable results!
Is Butter Reactive with Other Substances?
No. In general, butter doesn’t react with other substances to create a hazardous condition or increase fire risk. Butter is relatively stable and doesn’t readily engage in chemical reactions with other common substances.
It’s worth noting, however, that butter can mix with other flammable substances, potentially altering their combustion properties.
Still, this doesn’t inherently make the situation more hazardous, as the behavior of this mixture would largely depend on the other substance involved.
How Should You Deal with Butter Exposed to Fire?
If butter has caught fire, it’s crucial to handle the situation correctly to prevent the spread of flames. If the fire is in a pan, simply cover it with a metal lid to smother it by cutting off the oxygen supply.
If the fire is large or already threatening to go out of control, grab an extinguisher: the appropriate one for such an event is rated for Class B or Class K fires, or choose an ABC-rated extinguisher.
Class B extinguishers are designed for flammable liquid fires, while Class K extinguishers are specifically intended for kitchen fires involving cooking oils or fats.
ABC-rated extinguishers are versatile models that can tackle most types of common fires. But always remember that you must never hang in there too long trying to fight a fire that has gone out of control.
Get you and your family out, and call the fire department: nothing in your home is worth your life.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.