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Should I Use Butter or Margarine?

By Elizabeth West
Updated May 17, 2024
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Choosing butter or margarine is a hot debate among cooks. Some people have strong taste preferences governing which one they will use, and some like both. Certain pastries and cookies call for butter specifically, but most recipes work fine with either. There are also substitutes for butter or margarine that people with health and lifestyle concerns can use.

Regardless of whether butter or margarine is chosen, both contain water and fat in a ratio of roughly 15% to 85%. They have a lower melting temperature than shortening, and cause cookies to spread out wider but add more flavor. Homemade butter and some margarine has more water, which can be problematic for use in foods where a crisper texture is desired. Imitative spreads can be as much as 50% water and don’t produce consistent results.

Butter or margarine can contain saturated fats known to raise blood cholesterol. They each have about 0.141 ounces (4 grams) of fat and 35 calories per teaspoon. Hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated stick margarine is made solid by a process called hydrogenation, giving it more trans fats than the soft variety. When included sparingly in a healthy diet, using butter or margarine should not cause a problem.

Butter is made from cream, and its taste is often thought to be superior to margarine. It can be clarified to remove the milk solids that often burn when it is used for frying. Butter has often been the favorite of serious bakers for its texture and flavor, but many people say they can use butter or margarine and don’t notice any difference. Its advocates point out that butter has a richer taste and a smaller amount will suffice, actually saving calories.

Margarine is made from vegetable oil. Recipes can vary between companies, and the soft kind sold in tubs in supermarkets is not nutritionally different from butter. Many varieties of margarine have added vitamins and calcium, and are even whipped with air for a lighter texture and less caloric value. The American Heart Association in the US recommends the use of soft margarine over butter, and has even endorsed some brands.

For people who don’t wish to use butter or margarine in baking and cooking because of health problems and vegetarian or vegan lifestyles, vegetable-based oils and other ingredients may be substituted. Heart-healthy olive oil is good with many foods and provides a pleasing flavor. Some people use applesauce in sweet baked goods, citing a moist and delicious result.

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