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This Is the REAL Difference Between Butter and Margarine

Reader's Digest logo Reader's Digest 2/13/2019 Grace Mannon
a piece of cake sitting on top of a wooden cutting board: Butter cut into slices © Provided by Trusted Media Brands, Inc. Butter cut into slices

Butter and margarine are certainly very similar products—they look alike and you can often use them interchangeably—but the differences between them are critical. Check out these 21 common food myths that are wildly untrue.

What is butter?

Butter is a dairy product made from milk or cream. It’s created when cream is vigorously churned, which causes its solids (butterfat) and liquids (buttermilk) to separate, ultimately resulting in the firm product we all know and love. Whether it’s salted or unsalted, the flavor of good butter is second to none, and because of its basic ingredients and straightforward processing, it can easily be made at home. Butter must be at least 80 percent fat to be sold commercially, and the remaining percentage consists of water and milk proteins. Psst: Find out which brand of butter won our blind taste test.

What is margarine?

Margarine, on the other hand, is made from oil, water, salt, and a few additional ingredients such as emulsifiers. It’s flavored to taste like butter (did you know there was a time when coloring margarine to match butter was outlawed in some states?) but usually contains no dairy products at all. Margarine is formed through a complicated chemical process and is therefore not something you can make at home. By law, it must also be at least 80 percent fat, though manufacturers can get away with less by calling their product a “spread.” You’ll want to know about the scientific reason that butter could be healthier than you thought.

The key difference

It all comes down to the kind of fat involved. As an animal product, butter has high levels of cholesterol and saturated fats. Margarine, on the other hand, has more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (the good kinds!) but also often contains some saturated fats (the bad kind!). Their respective compositions explain why butter is so much firmer than margarine at room temperature—the higher levels of saturated fats make tightly packed bonds that stay rigid until heat is applied. That’s why you can keep it on the counter.

Though most bakers and cooks prefer butter for its unparalleled taste, margarine does have its place. Because of its high water content, baked goods made with margarine will often have a softer texture. Be wary when trying to make substitutions—many baking recipes from old cookbooks call for margarine, and because those have likely been developed to account for that additional water, it’s probably best to follow them to the letter if you can. Butter is ideal for treats like cookies and frosting, on the other hand, because those are recipes where its flavor is important, and extra water could be detrimental.

Butter and margarine may have their similarities, but they’re fundamentally different. Knowing how each is best applied will result in more kitchen successes and lots of good eats! Next, check out the butter hacks you didn’t know you needed in your life.

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