I remember when I first learned that butter wasn’t the same as margarine. I was super curious to know the differences as well as similarities between the two. Put simply, margarine is a highly processed food product made from vegetable oils, while butter is basically concentrated dairy fat. Butter is a dairy product made by churning cream. Conversely, margarine is a product designed to imitate butter.
Butter is the dairy product made from churning milk or cream. The churning process separates the butterfat (the solids) from the buttermilk (the liquid). The butter we most often buy is made from cow’s milk, although other varieties — made from the milk of sheep, goat, yak, or buffalo — are also available. While typically pale yellow in color, butter can range from white to deep yellow, depending on the animal’s diet. And since, at its core, butter is made from one ingredient, it can be made at home. The biggest factor that sets different brands of butter apart is the fat content, which ultimately has an effect on the butter’s taste and texture.
Margarine is a non-dairy product created as a substitute for butter. While originally made from animal fat in the 1800s, today the primary ingredients include vegetable oil, water, salt, emulsifiers, and some also include milk. Margarine can be found in both sticks and tubs. Unlike butter, margarine isn’t something that can be made at home. Like butter, regular margarine must also have a minimum fat content of 80 percent by law. Anything less is considered a “spread.”
Differences between Margarine and Butter
Since margarine’s primary component is vegetable oil, it lacks the cholesterol and saturated fat found in butter, and has a higher percentage of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. It may, however, contain trans-fat — although, many brands have reduced or totally eliminated this from the ingredient lineup, using palm oil and palm kernel oil in its place.
The most important difference between the two is that butter is derived from dairy and is rich in saturated fats, whereas margarine is made from plant oils. This difference has an impact on taste, texture, and nutrition. Although margarine used to contain trans-fat, nowadays, manufacturers have started phasing them out.
Margarine usually tops butter for heart health.
As far as substituting one for the other, it’s best to go by the recipe, especially when it comes to baking. Those margarines that have a lower fat content contain more water, which can lead to tougher baked goods.
As far as which one is better, your best bet is to just use whichever one you choose in moderation.