With first impressions, butter and margarine are certainly very similar products. Not only do they look very similar, but they are often used interchangeably in baking and cooking too—but they certainly have their distinctions. Learn the difference between butter and margarine in this article.
If you take a stroll down your local supermarket, you will notice the wide array of butter and margarine selections. Some may opt for butter; some reach their hands out to grab margarine. There are also strongly opinionated people on which one they prefer and find more superior than the other. But can one really tell the difference between butter and margarine? We will have a closer look right here.
The Difference Between Butter and Margarine
If you unwrap a stick of butter and a stick of margarine, you might not be able to tell the difference between the two. They are similar in color and texture, and even used in the same ways, but these two fats are completely different.
What Is Butter?
Made from churning milk or cream, butter is a dairy product. It is from the churning process that the butterfat (solids) can separate from the buttermilk (the liquid). Often, the butter that we get from supermarkets is made from cow’s milk. However, there are other butter varieties such as those made from the milk of sheep, goat, yak, or buffalo—those too, might be available depending on where you live, and the prices too will differ.
While the butter we see is commonly pale yellow in color, butter can range from white to deep yellow, and that all depends on the animal’s diet. And since, at its core, butter is made from one ingredient, it can be homemade too. For butter to be recognised as a butter, it must be at least 80% fat to be sold as a commercial good. Its remaining percentage should consist of water and milk proteins. Thanks to its basic ingredients and straightforward processing, it can easily be made at home. No matter the butter is salted or unsalted, a flavor of a good butter is delicious.
The Commercial Butter
Interestingly, if you see that your butter is labelled as “sweet cream butter”, this means that the butter was made with cream that has been pasteurized, or first heated to kill any pathogens and prevent spoilage. Speaking of such, it is good to know that all the butter in the United States is pasteurized. While the alternative that is, raw butter made with raw milk, is not allowed to be sold commercially in the United States. Yet, raw butter may be found in certain parts of Europe.
Whipped butter, which was designed to be more spreadable, adds air into the butter, making it lighter and less dense. So, an equal-sized portion of whipped butter, as compared to regular butter, will have fewer calories and a lower fat content.
Other Interesting Things about Butter.
Did you know that butter used to be an outlaw amongst nutritionists? Long time ago, it was labelled as food that is unhealthy (how unfair). The next thing you know, margarine appeared. Thankfully, the reputation of butter has long been redeemed and there are many happy eaters bringing back butter into their meals. But how much do we really know about the humble butter? Here are some interesting things you might not know about the butter.
- To make a pound of butter, it will take 21 pints of milk.
- You get butter by agitating cream until its fats separate into butter and buttermilk. (The buttermilk you get from the store is artificially thickened.) In fact, you can make your own buttermilk at home. Read how to make DIY Buttermilk.
- Most bakers prefer to use unsalted butter over salted butter for their baked goods and other desserts.
- Butter is a source of Vitamin A, which is great for hair, eyes, and skin, as well as Vitamins E, D, and K.
- Butter can taste differently depending on how it is made. Should you be fortunate enough to get butter from a local family farm or in Europe, you may find their butter having a cleaner taste. Butter that is made from raw milk can have a stronger flavor too.
- Unsurprisingly, India is the largest producer of butter. Ghee, a kind of clarified butter, is an important ingredient in Indian cuisine and can be found commonly in Indian households.
Now that you have got some idea on the butter situation, we will have a closer look on what its alternative, the margarine, is all about.
What Is Margarine?
Meant to be a substitute for butter, margarine is a non-dairy product that was then introduced to the world. While originally made from animal fat in the 1800s, today the primary ingredients would include vegetable oil, water, salt, emulsifiers, and some also include milk. Margarine can be found in both sticks and tubs. While margarine is not dairy based, many types contain trace amounts of animal products, usually in the form of whey or lactose. If you have a dairy allergy or are a strict vegan, you will want to use only those types of margarine that are free of even lesser amounts of dairy.
Fundamentally, it is important to know that not every margarine is created the same. There are variations from brand to brand making it necessary for people to read the label before going in on a brand. And unlike butter, margarine is not something that can be made at home.
Similar to butter, the basic margarine must also have a minimum fat content of 80 percent by law. Anything less than the stated percentage is considered a “spread.” The margarine and spreads found in the dairy aisle can range from 10 to 90 percent fat. Depending on the fat content, the levels of vegetable oil and water will differ, with those containing a lower fat content having a higher percentage of water.
And 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 removed this from their ingredient line-up, substituting it with palm oil and palm kernel oil instead.
Other Interesting Things about Margarine.
- As mentioned before, while butter has been around for a long time, the margarine is a more recent invention.
- The name ‘Margarine’ is derived from the Greek word for pearls, margarite, since margaric acid resembled milky, pearl-like drops.
- The Emperor Napoleon III of France offered a prize to anyone who could make a satisfactory butter alternative, suitable for use by the armed forces and the lower classes.
- In the 1930s and 1940s during the Depression and World War II, margarine gained its popularity due to its cheaper price and the scarcity of butter during such times.
- In some places in the United States, it is colloquially referred to as oleo, short for oleomargarine. In Britain and Australia, it can be referred to colloquially as marge.
- Today, margarine comes in many forms, from a hardened stick that resembles a stick of butter to a variety of softened products in tubs and other containers.
And The Key Difference between Butter and Margarine is?
The conclusion is, while used for many of the same purposes and are often interchanged, butter and margarine are two vastly different products. The main thing that sets them apart is what they are made from, and from there on, what are the types of fats they consist of.
As an animal product, butter will have high levels of cholesterol and saturated fats that are not present in margarine. Margarine, on the other hand, has more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat (good kind of fat), but also often contains trans fats (bad kind of fat). Their respective compositions also explain why butter is firmer than margarine at room temperature—because the saturated fats make tightly packed bonds that stay rigid until heat is applied. That is why you can keep butter on the counter. Bonus read: If your butter is still hard and you need it to be softer, learn how you can soften it in 10 minutes.
While most bakers and cooks would prefer butter for its unique taste, margarine does have its place in the kitchen too. Thanks to its high-water content, baked goods made with margarine will often have a softer texture as compared to the ones made with butter. Butter is ideal for treats like cookies and frosting, however, since those are recipes where its flavor is important and extra water could be detrimental.
Which Is Better? Butter or Margarine?
If you have tasted each of these spreads, then you know just how vastly different they are. Growing up in the early ’80s, some of us had used margarine in our household for quite a long time before switching to the amazing butter. And we all know once you have tasted good butter, it becomes easy to know what you want. A good-quality butter tastes amazing and there is no denying that. As far as which one is better, personal preference?
Some cooks prefer baked goods made with margarine because they have a softer texture. But flavor-wise, nothing can compete with butter—especially when it comes to cookies. As the dough bakes, the butter melts, and browns, making the cookies taste nutty, rich, and caramelized. For flavor, nothing beats butter, you can even make brown butter too and enrich your sauces with butter. What is your preference here, and why?
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