Butter vs. Margarine: What’s The Difference?

Many parents can remember the ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter’ ads that graced televisions during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Celebrities and everyday moms couldn’t get over the creamy taste of the butter substitute. However, the love of margarine is waning, according to Unilever, the parent company of the product. Many home cooks know they can swap out margarine for butter in dinner meals – but cookies, cakes and brownies sink and spread without the dairy original. Which leads to the question: What is margarine?

A vegetable substitute
You know the classic image of a pat of butter: It has a golden yellow hue to it. That’s due to the beta-carotene from the plants cows consume, National Geographic’s The Plate discovered. Margarine, in contrast, is pasty-white when it is first made. Scientists were able to make vegetable oil-based margarine stay solid at room temperature in the late 19th century – but with no beta carotene, the final product remained colorless. To keep pace with dairy farmers, margarine makers wanted to dye their products the same yellow color when it first hit the market at the end of the 19th century. The farmers pushed back, arguing that the similar color would confuse consumers. So they insisted margarine be dyed pink!

As the U.S. entered into World War II, butter rations caused margarine to increase in popularity. Families found they liked the taste – and companies won the right to dye it yellow again. When the ’80s diet fads focused on cutting out fat arrived, butter was on the chopping block and margarine became the lower-fat alternative. The rise of the local food movement cast a suspecting eye on margarine as an artificial food. Butter returned to glory as a whole food, in spite of its higher fat content. However, the two ingredients offer different results in dishes. What differences can you expect?

Butter overtakes margarine as the spread of choice. But will it last?

Margarine vs. butter in baking
Margarine offers a lighter taste than butter – and for some bakers, they prefer that taste in their cookies and cakes. Better Home and Gardens magazine noted that home bakers should use stick margarine, not tub margarine: It has less water in it, which ensures that pastries will stay soft when they come out of the oven.

The fat in butter is critical in many recipes – it has less liquid in it compared to margarine, creating a more delicate baked good. When mixed with sugar, it creates air pockets that lead to fluffy cookies. It’s best to stick with unsalted butter, so you can better control how much salt ends up in your final product. Browned butter can also lend a caramelized, nutty flavor to baked goods and frosting!

Want to ditch the margarine in your next recipe? You can use the same amount of butter. This makes it an ideal substitute for baked goods – because nothing should keep you away from a warm chocolate chip cookie. Can you taste the difference?

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