Butter is a pantry staple.
People love the flavor and it’s a required ingredient in most baking.
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For many people the taste of butter is a notable presence in even foods like cooked vegetables, and certainly on bread.
But what is butter really?
Aside from being a dairy product, derived most commonly from cow’s milk, butter is a fat that gets firm in cool temperatures and soft at room temperatures and warmer.
Different fats out there you may be familiar with, like cooking oils for example, operate in some ways similarly to butter, with the key differences being some flavor notes (like olive oil and coconut oil). The other difference is that cooking oils tend to have a low-no water content compared to butter which has a 10-15% water content.
Understanding the needs of your recipe when making a substitution will guarantee better results. If you need something to melt, you’re looking for something that can go from firm to liquid. If you need something to conduct heat, you’re looking for something with good heat resilience, and so forth.
Cheesey butter joke anyone?
A Look At The Science: Is Butter Healthy?
So why are we trying to substitute butter anyway?
Two reasons, Saturated fats and trans fats.
Saturated fats, like those found in meat and dairy, have an extremely high correlation with major diseases such as heart disease. Current international health guidelines recommend getting your saturated fat intake to “as low as possible” with maximum daily allotments of 10%, or according to the American Heart Association, no more than 5-6%. That’s essentially 2 pieces of buttered toast a day.
Trans fats, aren’t just in processed foods. They are strongly linked to heart disease, diabetes, and a host of behavioral problems. The hydrogenated oils we avoid in the packaged goods aisle are merely a synthetic version of the fat naturally occurring inside meat and dairy. The National Academy of Sciences, among other institutions, repeatedly report that the only safe percentage trans fats consumed is zero.
Don’t butter substitutes also have trans fats and saturated fats?
Yes, some do. While there is a difference between types of saturated fats, Long-chain being the most safe, it is always ideal to limit saturated fats, and eliminate trans fats, from your diet. That means making sure the butter substitute you buy isn’t packing hydrogenated oils, and if its primary ingredients are palm oil or coconut oil, to make sure to check the saturated fat content. Dairy butter has about 50-70% saturated fat, so that’s the range you are trying to beat. Of course there are alternatives to store-bought butter substitutes, which we will discuss below.
Why do we have so much butter in everything anyway?
Butter is the fat in milk. Every time we reach for that 2% milk, the rest of that % of milk fat is going somewhere: into your food, by way of butter and other food additives. Doesn’t it seem odd that consumer choice to avoid milk fat in some places are reversed in other products?
Well there’s a good reason for that: profit. Skim milk, 1%, 2% and whole milk, all cost the same (usually) at the store, but the byproduct can be monetized by the dairy industry, sold as a food additive to package goods, and processed into butter and other spreads.
The Ethics Of Butter
Industrial farming creates a cold and exacting mass production of milk, except unlike most factory settings, the raw material comes from living beings, hooked up to machines, forcibly impregnated, and then separated from their young. All while being fed a diet high in antibiotics and in many cases steroids, soy, wheat, and hormones.
They are then milked until they max out at half, or less, their average non-industry life expectancy. PETA has a good article on how cows in the dairy industry are treated. Just beware that some of the images/video is quite disturbing.
But not all farms are factory farms, sometimes there are small farms with happy cows, right? The life of a cow is a life without choice, without family, and is a life of strenuous labor. Cows are mammals just like us, and form close family bonds, and typically live together in family units their entire life. Instead, in the dairy industry, calves are taken from their mothers within hours of being born, which cause audible cries from both mother and baby that can last for days. Female calves are reared to become baby makers and milk producers, while male calves are sent off to become veal. Free From Harm put together a great article on dairy industry facts.
In either case, the dairy industry is one of the most heavily subsidized industries in the world, which means chances are, if you are paying taxes, you are paying to keep the price of milk stable and cheap, regardless of how successful the product does on the market. Routinely, dairy farming produces a loss, while generating immense greenhouse gases and industrial waste, all of which contribute to an unsustainable industry.
Some might even argue that cows in the meat industry have it better than dairy cows. Why you might ask? Beef cattle are sent straight to their deaths while dairy cows are overworked everyday until they can no longer produce milk. - Then they are sent to meat industry to get slaughtered.
Avocados make for a great butter substitution in recipes.
Quick substitutes for your recipes
Just because you’ve decided to ditch the dairy, doesn’t mean you need to ditch all your old recipes. There are a ton of recipes written to be specifically vegan or use vegan products, but below are the top 5 go-to substitutions you may want to try:
Oh yes, it’s a thing! It looks, tastes, melts, and bakes in every way like dairy butter does, but can be found with less saturated fats and no trans fats. I use Earth balance butter sticks exactly like I would butter in all baked goods, and especially pastry, where cold butter is essential for flakiness.
Avocado or Applesauce
Yeah, weird huh? But in many vegan baking recipes, like say brownies and avocados, or applesauce and banana bread, the oil serves mostly for moisture and heat transfer. Avocados have the fat content, and the moisture factor, and applesauce has the right moisture balance. So knowing the fat needs of your baked goods can really help.
No, not coconut oil, this maintains a lot of the other nutrients (especially fiber) from the dried coconut fruit, but is a rich spread for things like toast, or even dressing on steamed veggies.
Most often, butter is used in its warm or liquefied state, for cooking things like pancakes, or drizzling over a baked potato. In these cases, you can always use vegetable oil, with my favorites being avocado oil for anything involving high heat, or olive oil for warm or room temperature applications. In cooking recipes you can assume that ⅞ cup will replace 1 cup of dairy butter.
Coconut oil (and palm oil)
Coconut oil has a mixed reputation of being sometimes a health-food miracle and at other times an artery-clogging nightmare. And, well, they’re both right for different reasons. Coconut oil does however, behave exactly like butter in many ways, going from solid in cool temperature to liquid in warmer temperatures, and this is due to the saturated fat content. So, you’ll have an easy time doing a straight 1:1 substitute of coconut oil for butter, but if health is your primary concern, you may want to rotate from the options above. Also, coconut oil can be available for purchase with butter flavor, if that buttery flavor is your desire.
I hear others also use these to substitute for butter, but I have no personal experience.
- Prune puree (most likely in baking similar to applesauce and avocado)
- Vegan greek yogurt- this can be hard to find.
Earth Balance, one of the more common vegan butter brands.
Best Store-Bought Vegan Butter
You can’t go wrong with these earth balance sticks. They have organic and conventional, soy free, and other flavor options, and they come in sticks with the tablespoon markers on them. Oh that’s right, it also comes in a tub for spreadable applications.
This is a margarine mostly marketed for its reduction in fat content, but is available dairy free.
Pure may not be available everywhere, but you should grab it if you see it.
Miyoko’s European Style Vegan Butter
Miyoko’s products are exceptional, and this light creamy butter is excellent for spreading on toast and veggies, things where you are really going to taste the butter directly. It bakes well, but for the money, I usually choose Earth Balance for baking.
This brand is really good, but hard to find. If you come across Melt, definitely try it.
Making Vegan Butter From Scratch
So, your local store doesn’t have these options? Yeah, I know, its hard to find these items a lot of places (although that’s changing!). Here are some recipes so you can keep a good stockpile at home:
Palm Oil & Soy-Free Vegan Butter
This recipe combines coconut oil and plant-milk (with a clear vote for cashew milk) to make butter.
It involves a blender or food processor, and a container to freeze the mixture in. It uses both lecithin and guar gum to bind and emulsify. Can be pretty hard to track down soy-free lecithin, but it exists and is usually sunflower.
Vegan Butter Cubes
This recipe uses soy milk and coconut oil, lecithin, and is similar to the recipe above, but has a very detailed and useful guide to butter, and uses in baking. A great reference!
Coconut Butter Spread
This is a very simple recipe that only has one real ingredient: coconut shreds. You can find shredded coconut in practically any grocery store, and then mix in a high-powered blender. Salt to taste.
This video recipe uses similar ingredients to the above recipe, with soy milk, coconut oil, lecithin, but also includes avocado oil. In general, Mama Rosa has a great recipe video approach, and if you like seeing the steps this will be a good one for you.
Another soy-free option, this one favors almond milk, and uses liquid lecithin, unlike the recipes above which favor granulated.
This is by far the most gourmet recipe I have ever seen, and targets a more comprehensive flavor profile. It uses whole almonds in addition to soy milk, olive oil, coconut oil, but unlike the others does not include a lecithin but instead includes flavor boosters like sugar and nutritional yeast. Sounds delicious!
If you’re into cooking, and want to experiment more, you may want to check out Miyoko Schinner’s book Homemade Vegan Pantry.
Butter, its so many things, from peanut butter to coconut butter. We can ditch that old dairy and have delicious home-cooked classics, while showing compassion to animals, taking care of our own health, and doing the earth a solid. Which one of these vegan butter substitutions will you try first?