It's been common knowledge for a while that butter enhances the flavor of pretty much everything - from the basics like bread to pricier delicacies like lobster. But how does animal-based butter compare to the processed alternative margarine? Most people weigh butter and margarine against one another in terms of health, acknowledging that butter has more calories while margarine is chemically-constructed. But what are the differences really, and which should you be spreading on your morning toast?
Butter is a dairy topping made when milk or cream is churned, causing the solid butterfat to separate from the liquid buttermilk. Most butter available for purchase is made from cow's milk, but butter can be sourced from the milk of sheep, goat, yak, or buffalo. Typically butter found in grocery stores is pale yellow in color, but butter may range from white to very deep yellow, depending on the diet of the animal it came from.
The first step in making butter is separating the cream from the whole milk. The cream is then churned or vigorously shaken until it thickens considerably. Next, the liquid that separates out is removed, while the remaining clumps of butter are washed and solidify into the substance we know as butter. Sometimes salt is added, but the final product is required to be at least 80% fat, 16% water, and 3% milk solids.
While the label "sweet cream butter" may be confusing, this is just the official name for commercially sold, pasteurized butter in the U.S. This label does not indicate a butter that is any sweeter or creamier than you'd typically expect from a standard, grocery store butter.
Whipped butter is designed to be easily spread, containing more air and fewer calories and less fat than regular butter. Whipped butter is lighter and fluffier, and considerably less dense than a standard butter.
Grass-fed butter is butter made from the milk of cows that have been fed a strict diet of grass and is said to be the healthier (though more expensive) alternative to regular butter. Some claim the taste is identifiably grassier somehow, while others prefer the taste and find it richer than standard butter.
All butter in the U.S. is pasteurized, which means the milk is heat-processed to a temperature that kills bacteria which might otherwise transmit diseases through consumption. The tradeoff of having bacteria killed via pasteurization is that pasteurized foods have to be kept refrigerated, or else risk contamination and unsafe consumption.
A non-dairy-sourced alternative to butter, the base of margarine is vegetable oil, though other ingredients include water, salt, emulsifiers, and sometimes milk. Margarine comes in both a tub container (soft margarine) and sticks that more closely imitate butter (hard margarine).
Margarine is less expensive compared to its dairy counterpart, but unlike butter, you can't make margarine at home. Like butter, margarine has to have a fat content of 80% to be sold legally. (Less than 80% fat is considered a "vegetable oil spread".)
Because margarine is primarily made of vegetable oil, it doesn't have the cholesterol and saturated fat naturally found in butter, and instead contains a higher percentage of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats ("good" fats). The concern with margarine is the presence of trans fats, which is more common in hard margarine than soft. Though many brands have eliminated trans fat from their ingredients, always check the label to be certain your margarine is trans fat free if this is a concern.
The oils used to make margarine are hardened, and the rest of the ingredients of a particular brand's recipe are added. To make margarine resemble butter, colors and flavors are mixed in, as well as emulsifiers to combine the fat and water and keep them from naturally separating. Like butter, margarine goes through a pasteurization process, followed by chilling to make the mixture solid.
Hard Margarine is the kind sold in rectangular blocks that more directly resemble butter. While hard margarine is less common in stores, this type of margarine is made from hydrogenated vegetable oils, meaning it can be high in trans fat. Trans fats are notoriously bad for heart health as they increase bad cholesterol and actually lower good cholesterol.
Soft Margarine, the spreadable form that comes in round containers, is probably more familiar and is certainly more popular. Soft margarine is non-hydrogenated and has little or no trans fats, plus it actually contains fatty acids that are good for maintaining heart health.
Sorry butter purists - experts say soft margarine is the better bet for a healthy heart. Non-hydrogenated, soft margarine (with no trans fats) contains good fats from its vegetable oil base that actually help reduce bad cholesterol. Butter, on the other hand, is made from animal fat, which means it unfortunately contains more saturated fat that increases bad cholesterol and puts you at risk for heart disease.
Remember that you'll want to go for the softer margarines instead of the margarine sticks, opting especially for those that specifically say they contain no trans fats and minimal saturated fat. As a rule of thumb, the more solid the margarine, the more fat it contains. So technically, while neither butter nor margarine is "healthy" per se, the least unhealthy butter alternative would be a liquid margarine.
Most people prefer the taste of butter; many swear that you haven't lived until you've tried freshly churned, "real" butter, ideally from a farm. Based on the origins of both products, it's no surprise that generally the dairy taste and creamy texture of butter beats out the oil-based, greasier margarine. It's also worth noting that margarine is specifically flavored to taste more like butter, and imitations can only do so much when compared to the real thing.
Butter will always reign supreme when it comes to baking. This is one area where butter's high fat content actually wins it points! When it comes to cakes, cookies, and pastries, using butter rather than margarine makes for a richer, chewier texture. Which only makes sense when you consider that butter begins as a thick, luscious cream, rather than an oil. Unfortunately for margarine, it contains more water and less fat, so margarine-based baked goods are prone to baking thin and spreading out flatly when heat is applied in the oven.
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Which product you decide on will depend on your taste preference, health considerations, and cooking needs. While most people prefer the taste and texture of butter and find it the superior baking ingredient, current health science suggests soft margarine is better for your heart and health overall. There's nothing wrong with a few indulgences every so often, so it's probably a good idea to save butter for baking and special occasions, and consume margarine regularly with your morning toast.