Margarine is a vegetable oil-based fat that was created as a less expensive alternative to butter. Indeed the composition of margarine is very similar to butter, about 80% fat and 15% water, so the two can be used interchangeably. The earliest margarines can be traced back to mid-nineteenth century France. They were composed of beef fat mixed with water and milk solids for a butter-like flavor. When hydrogenation was invented around 1900, food scientists dispensed with the beef fat and moved to the purely vegetable-based formula we know today.

What is hydrogenation and what does it do? Well based on what you now know about fat, you can probably guess. It involves turning a liquid oil into a more broadly useful firm fat by adding hydrogen atoms to its fatty acid chains — which is to say, saturating them. This has the effect of creating more crystal-forming triglyceride molecules, and the fat firms (for all that, margarine still has a lower proportion of saturated fat than butter, lard or suet).

The problem with hydrogenating oil is that if you take the process all the way it creates a fat that’s so hard that it’s almost useless to a home cook. So margarine makers “partially” hydrogenate the oil in order to leave some free liquid fats in the mix. The problem with partial hydrogenation is that it creates a small proportion of trans fats which have become, shall we say, unfashionable in recent years. The funny thing is that all dairy fat contains a small proportion of trans fat and always has. It’s why organic butter can’t be labeled “contains zero trans fats”, because 5% of the fatty acids it contains have the dreaded “trans” bonds in their hydrocarbon chains. But when they’re in margarine or shortening they’re lethal. Go figure.

Oops, am I editorializing? Sorry. The point is that margarine, like butter, has trans fats in it. Margarine in stick form has more, but that’s because it’s firmer. Tub margarine is, by design, made to be spreadable even when it’s cool. However that soft consistency makes it unsuitable for most baking applications, especially laminated doughs. Firm stick margarine, by contrast, is perfect for an application like croissant dough. Indeed this very day there are more margarine-based croissants being made in France than natural butter croissants. And they are darn good!

Margarine melts at almost the same temperature as butter, often just a little higher — around 95 degrees Fahrenheit. That meams cookies made with margarine spread less in the oven as the starches in the flour have more time to relate and firm, and the egg proteins have longer to set.

25 thoughts on “Margarine”

  1. Do the added milk solids also aid in making the fat and water contents mix? In butter that obviously happens naturally, but no cows are involved here. The other way I can come up with would be mixing them mechanically, but that wouldn’t last long I’m afraid.


    1. Interesting question, uptight!

      I know that sometimes milk itself is often used in the manufacture of margarine. Milks has some natural emulsifiers in it which help, though usually a fair amount of lecithin (an emulsifier found in eggs) is put into the mix to stabilize it. Sometimes as much as 2%.

      – Joe

  2. Fascinating (as Mr. Spock would say). I thought the part about interchanging margarine and butter was interesting because so many recipes will say “do not use margarine in place of butter it has too much water in it”. Wonder why they say that if they are the same water content. That is funny about trans fats being part of butter but not getting condemned for it like margarine and shortening.

    1. Hey Linda! I don’t know why that would be myself. But it’s not as though margarine and butter are completely equivalent structurally. I’m sure there are applications where margarine isn’t as good. Not having worked with it much, however, I’m not sure what they are.

      I’ll investigate that!

      – Joe

  3. Can you talk a little bit about why one would ever use margarine over butter, especially in something like a croissant? Is it just cost? Or does it have some other property that makes it preferable, now that we know it’s not a health benefit?

    1. Hey Phoebe!

      Great question. Most of the reason really is cost. The butter I photographed cost $4.35 a pound. The margarine cost $0.88 a pound, and the quality is very decent all things considered. Keep-ability is another issue, however. Margarine, since it doesn’t have sugars like lactose in it, nor much else that micro-critters might be interested in, lasts longer than butter at room temperature without going rancid. The champ in this regard, however, is shortening. I’ll get to that shortly.

      Thanks for the question!

      – Joe

  4. Out of curiosity, how does the melting point of margarine compare to butter? I know that one of the desirable attributes of butter is that it melts somewhere between room temperature and body temperature.

    1. Hi Jane!

      Great question! I should have addressed this in the posts (and maybe I’ll go back and do that). Margarine’s melting point is a few degrees higher than that of butter, about 95 compared to butter which is around 90. This can vary depending on the butter (type, time of year it was produced, etc.) and the brand of margarine. But they are quite close.

      – Joe

  5. I knew there had to be a notable difference between margarine and butter, but this is more than i expected. We have margarine in my country and its widely used ( I now understand why my laminated dough probably didn’t come out the way it looked in the book, i used margarine). I think there is one brand that has butter but i don’t like because its salty. Now i’m starting to see the light. Oh, shortening is widely used here too. Now i have to go look for lard the next time i bake. hmmmmmm

    1. Do try it. If people like pork where you live you should be able to find lard somewhere. It’s a fat that deserves a comeback!

      Nice to hear from you again, Melody,

      – Joe

  6. One significant difference between trans fat in butter vs.margarine is the amount. Butter has a trace amount of less than 1/2 g per tablespoon and standard stick margarine has 3g or more per tbl. When only a couple of grams per day are supposed to be enough to cause some problems, it seem plausible that butter having so little and margarine having so relatively much is the reason for concern.

    I have no idea if trans fats are really as bad as scientists now claim, but if the are then the argument against margarine versus butter makes a lot of sense.

    1. Hey Jim!

      Thanks for that. The operative word is of course “if”. I pretty much left the trans fat debate when it become moot a few years ago (commercial food makers are now falling over themselves for the privilege of a “Zero Trans Fat” label), but at the time there wasn’t terribly much authoritative evidence to prove it was actually harmful — and certainly not enough to justify the level of hysteria around it. That may have changed. But even if it has it still won’t change my mind on the fundamental issue, which is that as a culture we’re constantly looking for the magic bullet, the bad apple in the barrel which, once removed, will make it OK for us to eat whatever we want in whatever amount we want without any consequences. When people stop eating trans fats and incidences of obesity and heart disease don’t change, we’ll simply move on to the next demon. Which is of course completely crazy. We need a more balanced approach, both to eating and to nutrition. That’s something Michael Pollan and I both agree on.

      Great note, Jim. Thanks again!

      – Joe

  7. Interesting, I just feel like the end result is better if I go with butter (oh how I lurve it)
    A thought though- That high ratio cake batter, it would seem to me that perhaps margarine would be a better sub for the shortening than butter for it. And perhaps, maybe other recipes that call for shortening. That or just pay out the er. rump for it from the import place.

    1. Hey Kitty!

      You certainly can use margarine in the high ratio cake recipe. Shortening will still be better for the emulsion it helps create, but it’s a good idea!

      – Joe

  8. Is there a quality issue between margarine available in the supermarket and the margarine used in France to make croissants? what are the selection factors in picking a brand of margarine? A friend has a bakery and he uses margarine in his croissant dough and butter in his puff pastry. He says the margarine makes for a softer dough more suited to crossants while the butter makes a “crisper” dough better suited to uff pastry.

    1. Very interesting, Stewart! Honestly I’m not sure about assessing margarine quality since I don’t bake with it very much. You want stick margarine and not tub margarine, that much I can tell you for certain. Other than that I tend to buy margarine from brand I already know, such as Land O’ Lakes. I tend to avoid the Imperials and Blue Bonnets of the world, since they’re the cheapest. Of course judging by price point isn’t a very reliable way to assess quality. It’s just what I do when I don’t know the lay of the land very well!

      – Joe

  9. Hi Joe
    Am loving the fat series 🙂
    A little bit of trivia you might find interesting is that in New Zealand (where we make great butter) when margarine was first introduced – I’m thinking in the 1960s – it could only be obtained with a Drs prescription and people had to go to the hospital pharmacy to get it !!!I was never sure if this was some protection racket by the country’s dairy farmers, or because it was such a new product that contained chemicals !!!
    For me there’s no question – butter every time.

    1. Hi Heather! Yes I know all about New Zealand dairy. I deal with Fonterra all the time in business! Given the power of dairy farmers in New Zealand, that doesn’t surprise me a bit. But who knows? And yes, I generally prefer butter myself. 😉

      – Joe

    2. When my Mother moved to NZ from the Channel Islands in 1962, she also had to go to a pharmacy to get olive oil for her salad. (Didn’t need a prescription though).

  10. As a kid growing up in Minnesota they had laws to protect the dairy industry that outlawed the sale of “colored oleo”. They may even have insisted on the term ‘oleo’ instead of margarine, though I am not sure about that.

    You used to see it in 1 pound bricks and there was an orange tablet in a packet with it. If you wanted yellow you crushed the packet and kneaded it into the white oleo.

    No point to this story, just thought you might find it funny (something about putting an onion in my belt because that was the style at the time B-{D )

    1. Hey Frankly! I have indeed heard those stories. White margarine as I understand it was once the rule in most parts of the country, so as to protect butter manufacturers. It looked sickly pale in comparison, and the best they could do was supply food coloring along with it so consumers could color it themselves.

      Great stories indeed, Frankly. Thank you!

      – Joe

  11. I’m old enough to remember getting margarine (it was as white as Crisco) in plastic bags with a pellet of yellow food color in the middle. You were supposed to knead the bag to mix the food color into the margarine to make it look like butter. Right… I don’t think either my mother or I ever managed to get it looking really right before that bag sprang a leak and squirted margarine.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t know the chemistry of the different fats but when I’ve given folks cookie recipes (particularly oatmeal lace cookies) that call for butter sometimes they say that they can’t make them like mine. EVERY time I’ve asked if they’ve used butter the answer has been “No. Do I have to?”

    1. Oh, gosh! I posted my reply before I read Frankly’s. So we’re of an age?! I grew up in New York City, so I don’t know what the laws were regarding the sale of margarine, but New York is a state with lots of dairy farms…

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