Margarine and butter are two solid fats used for everything from baking to serving as a spread on bread. Margarine was invented as a less expensive butter substitute. If you want to use one or the other for a recipe, read the SPICEography Showdown below to learn more about them.
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How does margarine differ from butter?
The term margarine can refer to several products made up of fat and water made to resemble and taste like butter. Butter typically only refers to the fat and proteins from milk.
Margarine and butter have different origins from different points in history. Margarine was first made in the 19th century with the first version consisting of animal fat with milk. The milk was there to provide the dairy taste of butter. Soon after, margarine evolved to incorporate vegetable oils though dairy was still used for flavoring purposes.
Butter has been around for far longer than margarine. Its origin story goes back to the early parts of human history when the milk of yaks or goats was churned in animal skin bags carried on pack animals. Early butter was prized as a food and as a salve for the skin.
The different production methods have resulted in two spreads with different effects on health. Margarine was originally marketed as a healthier alternative. In recent years we have discovered that this is not necessarily so since it contains trans fats, which are bad for heart health. The trans fats come about because of the hydrogenation process that is used to convert the vegetable fats in margarine from liquid to being solid at room temperature.
Butter’s saturated fats were once believed to make it worse for you than margarine, but now we know about the healthy saturated fatty acids it contains like butyric acid. While saturated fats are still associated with heart disease, so are the trans fats in margarine; the presence of healthy fats in butter may make it the better of the two.
Because they come from different sources, margarine and butter have different flavor profiles. Margarine’s flavor differs depending on the maker’s formula, but the main taste of margarine is the fat used to make it plus artificial butter along with some dairy elements.
Butter’s flavor comes from the butterfat and cream it contains. It is generally rich with some sweetness depending on the quality of the milk from which it comes.
Can you use margarine as a substitute for butter and vice versa?
From a flavor standpoint, margarine can usually work in place of butter if you are using it as a spread for bread. Additionally, some margarines can work as 1:1 butter substitutes in baked goods. Many are better at standing up to high temperatures than butter would be, so you can use them for frying.
Butter can be used as a margarine substitute in many instances but not all. Again, this depends on the margarine. Some may have a higher or lower fat content than butter and that will affect how butter functions in those recipes. Only room temperature butter will be a good spread for bread.
When should you use margarine, and when should you use butter?
Use non-hydrogenated margarine if you are trying to consume healthy fats. Partially hydrogenated margarine offers no advantage over butter except for price so use those only if you are trying to save money.
Use butter in dishes where the flavor is your priority. It is a consistent product for baking and for some kinds of sautéing.