Butter and olive oil are two of the world’s oldest and most popular cooking fats. They are both versatile and important for a wide range of dishes. In the SPICEography Showdown below, we look at how they differ and areas where they might be interchangeable.
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How does butter differ from olive oil?
The sources of butter and olive oil are very different. Butter is churned from cow’s milk while olive oil is squeezed from the flesh of olive fruits. As such, butter is an animal product while olive oil is completely vegan.
Butter and olive oil don’t look alike. Butter is yellow and opaque. It is also solid at room temperature. Olive oil is usually translucent to clear and liquid. Extra virgin olive oil is the least processed kind of olive oil, and it can have a green tint. More refined olive oils are closer to the yellow color of soybean and corn oils.
Butter and olive oil don’t taste the same. Butter is known for its rich and creamy flavor. Olive oil’s flavor depends on the type. Extra virgin olive oil has the brightest flavor. It is grassy and herbaceous with a subtle pepperiness in the really fresh versions. The more refined olive oils are closer to neutral with extra light olive oil having the least distinctive flavor.
Butter and olive oil have different effects on health. Butter contains a significantly larger portion of saturated fat per serving than olive oil. Many scientists believe that more saturated fat increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Olive oil has more vitamin E and omega 3 fatty acids, which provide antioxidant benefits to protect the body from free radicals. Butter has a broader spectrum of vitamins since it includes vitamins A and D to go along with its vitamin E and K content.
The temperatures at which these oils start to burn and emit smoke (called the smoke point) are different. The smoke point of butter is much lower than that of olive oil. Butter’s smoke point is 302 degrees Fahrenheit (150 °C). Extra virgin olive oil has the lowest smoke point among the olive oils at 374 degrees. Refined or light olive oil has the highest smoke point of the two, it won’t start smoking until you get it above 470 degrees.
If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?
Butter is a good substitute for olive oil in some baked goods and as a topping/dip for bread. Butter won’t give you the strong herbaceous notes that you would get from an extra virgin olive oil, so you may not want to use it in your marinara sauce or drizzle it over a salad. It won’t be a good substitute for olive oil if you need frying oil unless you plan to use it to make ghee. Butter burns at too low a temperature for it to be good for high- or medium-temperature frying.
Olive oil can be a good butter substitute if you want to cut down on the saturated fat in your diet or are lactose intolerant. It can be an improvement over butter if you want to fry at temperatures above 302 degrees.
When should you use butter, and when should you use olive oil?
Use butter wherever you want savory richness. It is best as a spread for bread, in cakes and to enhance the creaminess of potatoes.
Use extra virgin olive oil wherever you need a healthy, flavorful oil for a vinaigrette or use refined olive oil for stir-frying and other high-temperature cooking techniques.