It is a battle as old as time. Or rather, as old as 1869 when a French chemist invented a butter substitute for the French navy in order to get a reward from Napoleon III. Butter and margarine are products that are often used in the same food, but they are two vastly different products. Furthermore, everyone from professional chefs to home panini cooks that can only make toast have very strong opinions on which is better.
However, no one really know much about margarine or butter past that they prefer one over the other, often without even trying the other. Do you know which is healthier? Which cooks better? Do you even know what the difference between these two fatty toast companions really is?
What is the Difference Between Butter and Margarine?
While similar in nature, the primary thing that separates butter and margarine is the kind of fats that they use in order to create the process.
Butter is created from churning milk from cows, sheep, goats, and even yak, although most butter sold commercially is just from cows. This process separates the buttermilk (the liquid) from the butterfat (the solid). The butterfat is then processed in to butter, both salted and unsalted in flavor as well as blocked or whipped in texture.
Creating butter is such an easy process that people can even do themselves with heavy cream, a sealed jar, and a few shake weight-worthy motions. In fact, they will be making the very same product since all butter sold in the United States is pasteurized first, unlike butter available overseas that is made from raw milk.
Alternatively, margarine isn’t dairy at all. It was created by that aforementioned French chemist as an alternative for butter, one that wouldn’t spoil so quickly during long trips at sea. Today, some margarines actually do contain milk, but mostly they are made from vegetable oil, water, and emulsifiers. However, unlike butter that is, for the most part, the same in taste from producer to producer, margarine varies heavily in taste and texture depending on the producer. This is why most margarine fans not only prefer margarine, but prefer a particular brand as well.
Which is Better?
There is no right answer to this question. Obviously, margarine beats butter for some people purely based on their dietary situation, like those who are lactose intolerant or have decided to go completely vegan. It is also important to know that because margarine uses a different kind of fat, there are also recipes that specifically require it as butter would mess with the chemistry of the dish.
There are also the health benefits. Margarine has no cholesterol or saturated fats. It also has higher levels of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which are the good, heart-healthy fats. It used to be that margarine was a source of trans fats, though. However, most producers have changed to palm oil and palm kernel oil to eliminate that problem.
So, in short, margarine is full of healthy fats, good for baking, is non-dairy, and takes longer to go bad, so… It is better, right? Butter doesn’t really have much of a leg to stand on, except in the one area where it does excel – taste.
Some butter is rather lackluster in its flavor, but it is a revelation when you taste a really good, high-quality butter for the first time. It makes you want to completely forget about the impeding heart disease that too much butter can cause. That is why butter is so dangerous and, to many people, vastly better than margarine.
For all its health benefits, good flavor can go a really long way. Which is why margarine cannot be declared better than real butter, especially since the chemistry of many recipes require either butter or margarine, but they can never be used interchangeably. There are people out there that would also prefer a cow to a chemist, but those same people also realize that a number of antibiotics and other treatments given to cows are leeched into their milk, and thus, their butter.
And that is the very nature of the endless butter versus margarine debate.
Both butter and margarine have their benefits, but they both also have their fatal flaws for the consumer. That is why the battle still rages with no conclusion likely to ever be in sight, because there is no one right answer. It is, and has always been, completely up to preference. There are butter families and margarine families as sure as there are mayonnaise families and miracle whip families.