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Butter vs. Margarine in Baking

Canola OilWhen a recipe calls for butter, can you substitute it for margarine?

Is one better in baking than then other?

How are they made?

Is one healthier than the other?

We've attempted to answer these questions, and give you all the information you need to make your own choice for what is right for you, in all your cooking and baking needs.

Butter

Butter is a natural product made from pasteurized cream that has been churned until it turns into a solid (the remaining liquid is buttermilk). Pasteurizing eliminates bacteria and helps to improve its freshness and shelf life. The only other ingredient that can be added to the butter is salt. Butter (by law) contains at least 80% fat, 16% water and 3% milk solids.

Being made from animal fat, means butter contains cholesterol and high levels of saturated fat. Butter brands will vary in saturated fat levels, so be sure to read the nutritional label on the package to determine what brand is best for you. Your daily intake of saturated fat should be no more than 15 grams.

Your daily intake of saturated fat should be no more than 15 grams

For a lower calorie option try whipped butter. It is regular butter that has been whipped, so its filled with tiny air pockets making it light, fluffy and very spreadable. It has about half the saturated fat and cholesterol compared to regular butter. Although whipped butter should only be used as a spread, and should not be used for baking - since 1 cup of whipped butter is not the same amount (weight) as 1 cup of regular butter. Other options are butter brands that have been blended with other oils (like olive or canola oil), these will have similar fat and cholesterol levels as whipped butter, yet they can be used in all your cooking or baking needs.

Margarine

Margarine is created by a chemical process of adding hydrogen molecules into vegetable oil. It has no cholesterol, is low in saturated fat, and is higher in the ‘good’ fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) that can reduce LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol levels. There are both dairy and dairy-free options available.

Some margarines contain milk products, so look for a dairy-free variety if you are allergic

The fat content of margarine can vary from 30-80%. Types of margarine can vary in the amounts of trans fats they contain. Stick margarine's (hard) have the highest levels of trans fats (2g/Tbsp), compared to that of tub or spreadable margarines which typically contain no trans fats.   Check the nutritional label of the margarine you buy to be sure they contain less than 1% trans fat.

Most margarines now come fortified with essential fatty acids like omega 3 & 6, as well as additional vitamins. The fatty acids used are extracted from plant sources, like canola or soybean oil. Although, many health experts say these sources are less beneficial to our health than those derived from fish oils, since our bodies can’t process plant-based oils as easily and completely.

Avoid fat-free or low-fat margarine's as these products don’t maintain their structure and bulk in baking recipes. Your finished product will definitely result in an undesirable quality and texture.

 Why Butter is Better for Baking?

Baking - Hands of woman kneading healthy doughButters high fat content (80%) is what produces tender and flaky baked goods. Compared to that of margarine which can be as low as 35%, with the rest of its volume made up of water. Because of this, baked goods using margarine (unless the recipe specifically calls for it), will end up looser batters and dough’s that spread out too much (like in cookies), and can burn quicker. If you do use margarine in baking, be sure it is not a calorie-reduced product, and has at least 80% fat.

Before substituting margarine for butter in a baking recipe, it's important to understand what the butter does and does not contribute to the outcome of the finished product.

In most baking recipes where butter is not the main ingredient, margarine should be fine as substitute. Just be aware that for cookies, you may want to chill the dough before you bake it, to prevent the cookies from spreading out too much. For cakes, when you’re creaming the margarine and sugar, the margarine can get too warm while being whipped and start to melt. Once the margarine starts to melt at this stage, it won't be able to hold air bubbles in the batter, making your baked goods more dense, instead of light and fluffy . This can really affect the texture of your cake, so be sure the margarine is well chilled, and you don’t over-beat the batter.

Where butter is the main ingredient in a recipe, like in puff pastry, pie crusts, shortbread and spritz cookies, these types of recipes require specific ratios of fat and moisture in order to succeed, so butter should not be replaced with margarine.

If butter is the main ingredient (like in puff pastry), it should not be replaced since specific ratios of fat and moisture are required in order for the recipe to succeed

Margarine can be used in frosting's, however if using large amounts to decorate a cake (especially around the sides, like in a layer cake), be aware that if left un-refrigerated the frosting will remain soft and not set up. There is also a good chance it will start to sag and ‘melt’ off the cake. I speak of this from personal experience -  My sister set the cake I made on top of the fridge (now I realize that is a very warm place to be!), luckily it was only my son’s monster truck birthday cake, and no one other than family saw the side door fall off the cake!

So Which is Healthier?

Health-wise, (soft) margarine is generally recommended by the medical profession when choosing a heart healthy option because it is free of cholesterol and lower in saturated fats. Although it's the trans-fat content that is of controversy with margarine. The trans fat found in butter is naturally occurring and is considered safe. However it's the industry-produced trans fats that are of great health concern. O grams* of trans fat listed on the nutritional label of soft margarine does not necessarily mean it contains no trans fat - it's just below the limit of what a manufacturer can label as 'trans fat 'free.

Nutritionally speaking, here is how the two stack up:

Per 2 tsp ServingSalted Butter (No Name)Becel Original Margarine (Tub)
Calories7070
Fat (g)88
Saturated fat (g)51
Trans fat (g)0.20*
Polyunsaturated (g)02.5
Omega 6 (g)01.5
Omega 3 (g)00.6

 What Makes Butter & Margarine Yellow?

Butter naturally contains carotene (due to the cows diet), which is a yellow colored pigment and a natural source of Vitamin A.

Margarines don’t contain this compound naturally, so a colorant or carotene will be added to make the margarine look more like butter (otherwise it is white like shortening). In addition to colorants, flavorings are added to make it taste more like butter.

Did you know that some governments around the world had legislation (even as late as 2008) that prevented margarine manufactures from adding colorant. This was done to try and protect the butter producers due to the increase in popularity of margarine, when it first came on the market in the 60's, by trying to discourage its consumption.

Using Oil as a Substitute

It may not work in all cases, but here are some generally guidelines on how to substitute butter or margarine for oil:

Butter or MargarineReplace with Oil
1 tsp3/4 tsp
1 Tbsp2 1/4 tsp
2 Tbsp1 1/2 Tbsp
1/4 cup3 Tbsp
1/3 cup1/4 cup
1/2 cup1/4 cup + 2 Tbsp
2/3 cup1/2 cup
3/4 cup1/2 cup + 1 Tbsp
1 cup3/4 cup

And The Winner Is....Plate with Question Mark

So which is better? There is no right answer, that’s a question each of us must ask ourselves based on our own particular needs - be it, dietary or health issues, cost, and personal taste.

The information provided in this article is not to debate the nutritional value of butter and margarine - that is a whole other article on its own written by a medical professional, but instead to let you know how you can use them in your cooking and baking needs, and which product will produce the best results.

MeltingCoconutOilWanting to substitute butter or margarine for coconut oil? Check out the article Cooking With Coconut Oil to find out how!

2 Responses to Butter vs. Margarine in Baking

  1. Darle Blais December 17, 2014 at 1:36 pm #

    I will never , never , use margarine ! I t is totally unsuitable for the human body. I absolutely hate it . It really upsets me when I here people say it is a healthier option . NOT SO !!!!!

  2. Betsy March 20, 2015 at 2:21 pm #

    Margarine is horrible for your body! There are now research studies that possibly implicate multiple sclerosis and margarine consumption.

    Also, you are using an apostrophe for simply plural words. When ever there is an apostrophe, then the word should be followed by something that is owned by it. As in Betsy's cat. When you are simply indicating more than one, the apostrophe is never appropriate.

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