We have Napoleon to thank for margarine. If you’re a fan of our podcast, Burnt Toast, you probably knew that already. (Oh, since you mentioned it, Burnt Toast is back in action tomorrow, yay!) In the mid-1900s, about a century after its invention, margarine became particularly popular when it was championed for its low cholesterol. Which means, we now have a whole generation of wrinkled and ripped, stained and yellowing family recipe cards—you know, the best ones—that call for the ingredient.
Our contributing writer and editor Lindsay-Jean Hard couldn’t help but wonder: Can you just use butter instead? While margarine is still alive and kicking—especially for vegan, plant-based recipes—most contemporary bakers prefer butter.
I asked my grandmother if she used margarine back in the day: “Oh, yeah!” she replied. But when I flipped through her recipe box, there weren’t that many margarine recipes. A brownie here, another brownie there. Most of the time, when margarine appeared, it was marked as optional: butter or margarine, as if the two are interchangeable. Are they, though?
This question is as old as, well, margarine. Our community chatted about it on our hotline years ago. Erikal replied as such:
Yes, there's a significant diff—I use margarine when making baked goods for a friend who cannot have whey or casein, so have to use vegan margarine, to boot. Cookies are softer—I haven't figured out how to get chewiness with margarine batters. They also don't develop a crispy top/crust, and they don't brown as well. Brownies and other bar cookies suffer, too, though less noticeably. Again, it's a textural diff. And all baked goods taste "flat" when compared to those made with butter, because margarine itself has a very flat and not a "rounded" flavor. I would never choose to use margarine for anything but sometimes, ya gotta do what ya gotta do.
To test this, I made one cake recipe—once with butter, again with margarine—and a cookie recipe—once with butter, again with margarine. In both cases, I did a one-to-one substitution, as most sources recommend.
This particular recipe, created by the Imperial margarine brand, was a hit in the 1960s and ’70s. A few years back, one reader requested it in The St. Louis Dispatch and 15 readers shared the same recipe. The link has since died, but I found a doppelgänger over at Genius Kitchen. It’s an old-school pound cake in that there’s no commercial leavener, just eggs. Also, the sugar is all powdered, which includes cornstarch, which helps create a tender crumb. Were the two cakes identical twins? Not quite.
- The original, with margarine, was pale on top, with a dense, moist crumb. “I can see how pound cake traditionalists might prefer marg!” one taste tester noted. Several also commented that this cake was slightly saltier. (Margarine contains salt whereas unsalted butter contains, well, none.)
- The butter-fied version was more colorful on top, with a slightly lighter, fluffier, drier interior. “I like the crust!” one person said. “Better texture, more springy, nice buttery flavor,” another said. Indeed, if you’re going for a buttery pound cake, you probably should use butter!
Chocolate chip cookies
Betty Crocker’s original chocolate chip cookies from 1969 call for margarine and shortening. Today, her Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies call for “butter or margarine.” Same difference, Betty says? Well, sort of.
- The butter-based cookies are crispier, with sturdy edges and a distinct chew. “Somehow this tastes fruitier and almost floral to me? Like blueberry!” one taste tester said. “Deciding now that it’s probably the cream/milk fat of the butter.” Another was also wooed: “Lovely crispness—if you're into that—and superior flavor. Nice caramelization and brown sugar shines.” Butter in the bag, right? Well...
- Meanwhile, some editors were all about the tender chewiness of the margarine batch. We agreed that they reminded us of a childhood bakery, though we couldn’t place where or when. If you’ve ever been in a supermarket and scored a free cookie, these will bring you back there. “I'm really down with this chewy texture!” one said. “But flavor lacks compared with butter.”
Do you ever substitute margarine for butter, or vice versa? Tell us about the recipe in the comments below!