Butter vs. Margarine: what are the pros and cons of using these two popular fats in baking?
I’ve heard all sorts of half-baked opinions about them! One side embraces margarine while the other side “wants to make the world a
butter place”…! Besides choices dictated by health problems or intolerances, however, it is time we take a good look at the structure
and sensory qualities of these two fats.
Butter, as we all know, is the star of fats in baking, mainly thanks to its fragrant notes and its delicacy in doughs and creams.
On the market we can find a wide range of butters with varying price points and qualities:
it crumbles even when you cut it; its fatty substances would not combine unless special processes or barely legal emulsifiers were
used; from a gustatory viewpoint it is bland and tasteless, also it performs very badly in baking. It is usually derived mechanically
from whey through a cream separator.
a good-for-all option if chefs and customers are not demanding. This butter has a fairly stable structure and a quite mild taste; this,
too, is derived from mechanical processes through a cream separator or churner.
High quality butter:
both the consistency and the sensory qualities of this butter are excellent; it adds an extra layer of deliciousness to baked goods,
resulting in fragrances that are always delicate, never overwhelming.
Mountain farm butter:
produced in mountain farms and creameries, this butter stands out for its intense yellow hue due to the rich and varied nutrition of
cows feeding on mountain pastures. The consistency of this butter is excellent but in baking its intense and somewhat cheesy
flavour may affect the delicacy of desserts.
Specialty butter (not in point of quality):
anhydrous, (i.e. containing no water), vanilla-flavoured, plain or treated with carotene, etc., are types of butter we cannot buy at the
grocery store because they are aimed exclusively at professional kitchens and bakeries.
A good butter should taste like cream! Unfortunately we Italians excel at making cheese, but less at making quality butter.
This was a bit of a red-rag, of course; in Italy, too, we can find reputable companies that market some outstanding butter.
Margarine was first introduced in bakeries in the 70’s as a substitute for butter: it offered a completely new plastic quality, it
performed better at hot temperatures and it reduced refrigeration requirements since you just needed to store it in a cool dry place to
make it last very long.
Health-wise it was marketed as the sovereign healthy alternative to butter, that had by then been equalled to cholesterol.
The manufacturing process of margarine consists in heating oils up to around 180°C and later treating them with hydrogen; oils
become solid during the process.
When we consume hydrogenated saturated fats (the medical term is “trans fatty acids”) our body does not recognize them and as
they circulate in our body they build sediments similar to cholesterol.
As to their gustatory qualities, these fats are worse than butter; if not properly processed they result in a greasy mouthfeel, as can
happen with puff pastry, and if not properly stored they become oxidised and “soapy”.
Having said that, I will add that in case of food intolerances (like dairy products), or when following a vegetarian food regime
margarine can be your choice ingredient to prepare a dessert since oils are not always a viable substitute for butter (as in
Whether you choose butter or margarine…or both mixed together, do not forget to buy quality products: the good quality of your raw
materials and ingredients is key to your successful baking!
Have a nice dessert!