Difference between Butter and Margarine in Baking

Published on November 23, 2016

When tasting a cake or a really good cookie some people claim to know whether it was made with margarine or with butter. Could it be? Is the difference between them so obvious? We all know baking is more demanding than regular cooking, with precision being key in ingredients and proportions. One teaspoon more or less of anything can ruin your dessert. But is there really such a big difference between butter and margarine in baking?

Definitions

Butter vs Margarine in Baking
Butter

Butter is a dairy product resulting from the churning of fresh or fermented milk or cream and separating the resulting butterfat and buttermilk. Butter can have different shades of pale yellow, depending on the animal’s feed or added colorings. The taste is of fatty milk and can have added flavors such as salt, yogurt and more.

In baking, fat plays an important role – that of a raising agent. For example, in cakes, the fat in butter makes the creamed sugar fluffy and light. The air incorporated into cake batter creates pockets in which other gases are released while baking.

Butter is part fat, part water, and part milk solids. Less fat means more liquid in the composition. This stops the dough from growing and makes it tougher. Butter also helps leaven the pastry by creating steam when placed in the oven. The steam comes from the liquid in the butter evaporating and this lifts the pastry.

Margarine
A tub of margarine

Margarine was created in France in 1869 as a butter substitute for the French army and for the lower classes. It is made from vegetable oils and consists of a water-in-fat emulsion. Although initially meant for table use and not for baking, it is now used in a variety of recipes.

Its texture is that of a spread and it has a very low melting point. When cooking with margarine, it’s best to go for the fattier options, as the ones with less fat only contain more water. This will make your dough too thin and will not help it rise. Cookie dough, for example, will be flat or stick to the pan and will burn quickly.

Butter vs Margarine in Baking

So what is the difference between butter and margarine in baking?

It consists of taste, texture and aeration. The high fat content in butter helps make dough tender and flaky. Since margarine is mostly water, unless you choose a stick of 80% fat margarine made specifically for baking, the dough will be crumbly, dense, and will lack elasticity.

Taste is in butter alone. Although margarine has flavors, they do not transfer to any type of baking. Texture is another point in favor of butter. At the right temperature (kept for 60 minutes at room temperature) it will make your batter creamy. What is more, well aerated batter will make a fluffy cake that can hold its shape for longer.

All in all, although some people swear by recipes that use margarine, most bakers prefer butter. However, vegans choose margarine over butter for obvious reasons. Also, people with heart conditions have to limit their butter and fat intake and may choose margarine. Otherwise, the safest bet is to use the ingredient indicated in the recipe.

Comparison Chart

Butter Margarine
Made from churned milk Made with vegetable oil
Helps dough rise because the fat prepares sites for the expansion of gases released through thermal preparation Mainly water and does not help dough rise nor keep its shape over a span of time
Gives desserts a flaky, tender consistency Makes desserts crumbly
Adds flavor due to its milky taste Has no contribution to taste
Gives batter a creamy texture Makes the batter more moist