Can You Use Margarine Instead of Butter?

Sometimes you just need cookies. You head into the kitchen to start baking and realize that you have margarine, not butter. You always use butter when you bake, but it’s too late to go to the store now. Don’t worry. We have the solution to your butter substitution needs.

A 2020 poll by Statista showed that out of approximately 330 million Americans, 184 million are more likely to use margarine than butter. Since so many people use margarine instead of butter, it is good to know which recipes work well with this substitution.

Margarine is available in hard sticks and in soft spreadable tub varieties. Due to the amount of water in the margarine formulas, the sticks of margarine work better for baking.

Because many people choose brands of margarine over butter for lower cholesterol or reduced fats, the amount of fat and the kind of fat varies from brand to brand. Margarine with higher amounts of fat and lower amounts of water work best in baking.

In baking recipes, you should choose margarine with high-fat content and low water content. The best choices are the stick versions of Fleischmann’s, Land o’ Lakes, Imperial, and Blue Bonnet. For baking, you can also substitute plain or butter-flavored shortening, like Crisco, in equal amounts. Tub margarine has higher water content and is often whipped to be easily spreadable, so it is a good substitute for butter in cooking recipes. 

Most baking recipes and test kitchens use butter for baking, so if you choose to use one of the substitutes we explain below, your results may be slightly different than the original recipe describes. 

The Difference Between Butter and Margarine

Butter is a dairy product make from cream. When the cream is shaken or churned, the milkfats separate from the liquids and form into a semi-solid product, which is butter. Because it is an all-natural product, it is high in cholesterol and saturated fats. These fats hold together tightly, so you can keep butter on the counter at room temperature, and it stays firm. 

Margarine is a product made of oil, water, salt, and emulsifiers that keep everything combined evenly. It has polyunsaturated fats but also is high in trans-fats which are not healthy in large amounts. Margarine usually needs to be stored in the refrigerator because it doesn’t stay as stable at room temperature as butter does. 

When you bake, consider that margarine has more moisture in it than butter. So if a recipe calls for butter and additional water, and you want to use margarine, you may not need extra water.

Health-wise, there are benefits to both margarine and butter. Butter is high in cholesterol, so a person with high cholesterol may want to eat margarine instead. Margarine is often a better choice for heart health due to its unsaturated fats. However, some margarine is high in trans-fats which can increase cholesterol as well. Be sure to look at the nutritional information when you decide which margarine to use.

Butter is more expensive than margarine and costs 3-5 dollars per pound depending on the brand. Margarine tends to be less expensive. Sticks of margarine may be as low as $1 per pound. While the whipped tubs of margarine start at about $2 per pound. Some of the oil blends of margarine, and the heart-healthy formulations may cost more, around $3 per pound.

Butter, Margarine, and Shortening Substitutions

Butter Substitutes in Cookies

You can use margarine or butter in your cookies, and either choice will be delicious. However, margarine is made from oil, while butter is solid fats. As a result, cookies made with margarine may flatten out and be thinner than cookies made with butter.

If you only have shortening, it will also work as a substitution for butter in baking cookies. Shortening is a solid fat and does not have water content. It also doesn’t have any flavor, unlike butter. Therefore, you will need to add a little bit of salt, flavoring, and possibly water to your recipe if you substitute margarine.

In cookies, you can substitute equal parts shortening for butter. If your recipe calls for a cup of shortening, also add a ¼ teaspoon of salt. For a ½ cup of shortening, add a ⅛ teaspoon of salt.

Butter Substitutes in Bread

Bread and Muffins made with butter are likely to have a more pleasant taste and texture than bread made with margarine. Bread made with butter will be creamy and rich. If you use margarine, your bread may be less creamy, but it is likely to stay moist longer due to the oil in the dough. 

Using a small amount of shortening added to the butter in a bread recipe can make it soft and easy to slice. Substituting all the butter for margarine might change the texture of a loaf of white bread. 

Substitutes for Butter in Cakes and Muffins

Butter makes a cake creamy, tender, and springy. The texture of the cake will be more consistent throughout if it is made with butter. If you use margarine as a substitute for butter in a cake or muffins, it will have a similar taste, especially in flavored cakes like chocolate or spice cake.

Margarine may make the texture less springy than butter would. Also, bakers recommend that you use stick margarine instead of tub margarine so that the fat content will hold up in the batter better.

When shortening is used in baking, it can create a crumbly or crispy texture. So it is an excellent substitute for butter in cakes and muffins. It makes the dough retain its moisture and can give it a nice crumbly texture. 

Use Margarine Instead of Butter

Butter Substitutes in Pastries and Pie Crusts

Many recipes for pastry and pie crust call for shortening instead of butter. You may use margarine instead of butter in pie crusts and pastries.

Use the same amount of margarine as the recipe states for butter or shortening. Be sure to use stick margarine, not tub margarine. If you use margarine, cut it into tiny pieces, then freeze it for a flakier pie crust. 

Butter Substitutes in Frosting

If you are planning to make buttercream frosting, you can use margarine instead. Be sure to use sticks of full-fat margarine, not a low-fat or tub variety. A whole butter or margarine frosting will be incredibly flavorful but will also be very heavy and have a tendency to melt. It does not hold up as a decorator icing as well as some other frostings do.

If you are out of butter, you can make frosting with shortening only. It is a pure white frosting with a neutral flavor. Shortening frosting is an excellent choice if your cake will need to be out of the refrigerator for a long time. Shortening frosting will hold up well at room temperature. 

On the other hand, you can make frosting with a combination of butter and shortening, which will give you the flavor of butter and the stability of shortening. It would be an excellent choice for both taste and decorating. 

Butter Substitutions in Cooking

When you are cooking and the recipe calls for butter, you may be able to use something else if you are out of butter.

Substitutes for Butter When Cooking a Steak 

If you are cooking a steak on the stovetop, your recipe may call for you to rub the steak with butter near the end of the cooking time, about one minute remaining. The melted butter and seasonings make a rich flavorful sauce for the steak to rest in. 

If you are out of butter, you can use other kinds of fats to create the sauce, but the purpose of making the sauce is to add flavor. Margarine may add less flavor than butter, but it will function in the same way.

If you prefer, you could use a small amount of olive oil right at the end of the cooking time. Don’t add the olive oil early in the cooking process because it can burn at high temperatures and add a bitter taste to your steaks.

Substitutes for Butter in Vegetable Dishes

You can easily substitute margarine for butter in vegetable dishes because the butter is used for flavoring. Feel free to use your favorite margarine, in sticks or from a tub, in mashed potatoes, broccoli, or steamed veggies. 

If you are baking the vegetables, consider coating them with just a dab of olive oil or vegetable oil so that the seasonings stay on the vegetables.

Substitutes for Butter When Making Soup and Roux

The reason that you would need butter in a soup is to sear your meat. You can use any kind of fat or oil like butter, margarine, vegetable oil, or olive oil to prepare the meat for your soup. Be sure to consider your soup’s overall flavor so that you don’t use an oil that competes with the soup’s taste. 

Roux, a mixture of fat and flour, is the base for many different sauces that need to be thickened. White sauces require a light roux where the flour hasn’t browned. In dark roux, the flour is browned and is used for sauces like gravy and gumbo. 

If you are out of butter, you can use stick margarine or other oils to mix with the flour for the roux. Avoid tub margarine because the water content is too high. If you use an oil, go for one with a neutral flavor to not affect your sauce’s taste.

Butter Substitutes for Greasing a Baking Sheet

If you are out of butter and need to grease a baking sheet, we have good news! You probably have many choices in your kitchen that will work instead. You can use a cooking spray, which is aerosolized vegetable oil.

You can also pour a little vegetable oil on a paper towel and wipe it around on the pan. Olive oil, canola oil, and sunflower oil are also good choices. Spread shortening on the pan with a paper towel, if that is all you have in the kitchen as well. 

If you are preparing a cake pan, the best way is to spread shortening around the bottom and sides of the pan evenly, then dust it with flour. This process will allow you to remove the cake from the pan easily after baking.

Frying With Butter Substitutes

If you want to deep fry something, like eggrolls or french fries, you should be using vegetable oil or shortening. Butter and margarine are not made for such high temperatures and will become smoky and burn at the temperatures required for deep frying. 

If you are simply using a little butter or margarine to sautee a piece of chicken or steak, then you should be successful with either choice.

Other Substitutes for Butter

If you are making health-conscious decisions, you may need to avoid the fats in butter, shortening, and oil altogether. You can use unsweetened applesauce in equal parts for some or all of the butter or oil in a recipe for a flavored bread or muffin. Applesauce will add a lot of moisture to the final product, but it will also be denser.

Coconut oil can replace butter in baking in equal parts. It may change the taste of your product a bit, so it may work best in foods with a strong flavor like chocolate or something that is already tropical.

In some recipes, like pumpkin or banana bread, you can substitute olive oil for butter. The substitution ratio is 3:4. So if the recipe requires 1 cup of butter, you would use ¾ cup of olive oil. If you choose olive oil as a substitute for butter remember that it will only work in bread and muffins, not in frosting.

You may also try the following substitutions at a 1:1 ratio. Be aware that they may change the taste or density of your baked goods, so you may have to make adjustments to the liquid content of the recipe.

Some of these ingredients will work better in recipes with strong flavors than others. Substituting avocado for butter works best in chocolate recipes. Mashed banana is a good substitute but should be added slowly and mixed well.

Full-fat unflavored Greek yogurt is an excellent substitute for butter as long as dairy is not a problem for you. It will add a tangy taste to your baking.

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Final Thoughts

You may need a substitution for butter because you have run out. Perhaps you are making more health-conscious decisions. Either way, you can make substitutions to your baked goods and your cooking that will continue to add flavor and texture.

Margarine and shortening are the most similar to butter and work well in most recipes. For substitutions with more health benefits, you might try avocado, banana, applesauce, or Greek yogurt. Whatever you choose, you will have adventures in baking.

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