Let’s start with the bad news. There is absolutely nothing on this earth that can truly replace butter. Not the most extra-virginal olive oil, not the most convincingly golden popcorn topping, not even the most optimistically branded substitute spread. If it’s not butter then yes, I can believe it’s not butter. But if you’ve just flipped open the butter door to find yourself staring into the void, don’t despair. With some clever substitution techniques, you’ll be baking, sautéing, or slathering toast without a stick in sight.
Butter, like most good things in life, is an emulsion. Agitate cream enough, and the tiny droplets of butterfat will come together, separating from the watery buttermilk. The result is mostly butterfat, but not all. Butter is typically 15 to 30 percent water, with milk proteins working as an emulsifier (more on these later).
Because butterfat is hydrogenated—i.e., the carbonic acid chains of butterfat molecules are covered in hydrogen atoms, which keep the molecules from curling, and help them bond to other butterfat molecules—butter is solid at room temperature. This is important for making flaky pie dough, fluffy buttercream, or for buttering toast, so when substituting for it in these types of recipes, we’ll need to use other hydrogenated fats to fill the role.
We’ll also have to consider the way butter behaves when it’s melted. It has a very low smoke point (about 200 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit), but before it starts smoking, it browns. The delicious nutty flavor of browned butter comes from the milk proteins and sugars in the butter undergoing Maillard reactions (aka, browning). This is one of the things that’s just about impossible to replicate with other fats, though we can create Maillard reactions in other ways.
To tackle the impossible challenge of replacing butter, we need to divide and conquer. Some alternatives work perfectly in flaky tarts while failing spectacularly in delicate creams (take lard, for example). Others are perfectly suitable for sautéing, but turn pastry dough into a soggy mess (say, olive oil). To cover butter’s majestic range, each alternative oil or fat must play its part.
Maybe you’ve run out of butter, but, searching frantically through your pantry, you stumble across a jar of ghee. Huh, you say. This is basically butter, right? Well, not wrong. Ghee is made by heating butter until it clarifies (the water and milk proteins separate from the fat), and then heating it some more until the milk proteins brown, imparting their heavenly, nutty aroma.
Ghee has, and it pains me to say this, some clear advantages over butter. Its smoke point is over 200 degrees higher (around 485 degrees Fahrenheit), it’s basically shelf stable, and its flavor is richer and, well, more buttery than butter. For frying and sautéing, ghee has the advantage. For sponge cakes and other baked goods that call for clarified butter, feel free to sub in ghee, anticipating a nuttier flavor. Or throw caution to the wind and make it into puff pastry.
There are many vegan butters available on the market (and we've rounded up our ten favorite here). You can use vegan butters in most recipes that call for dairy butter in a 1:1 swap, whether baking or cooking. They have a spreadable texture and nutty, buttery flavor, though they can't be browned like dairy butter can.
I would argue that, as a rule, baked goods are mostly just a vehicle for butter, except for when they are a vehicle for chocolate. But that’s not to say that baking without butter is a hopeless endeavor. In fact, some of my favorite sweets are exceptions to this rule.
Like butter, coconut oil is a hydrogenated fat with an assertive flavor. Use it to make a tempting pie dough, or in this decadent, dairy-free carrot cake. Just remember that it’s flavor will shine through wherever it goes, and it tastes nothing like butter.
Samin Nosrat is obsessed with oil cakes, and you should be too. Because they are made with un-hydrogenated fats that are liquid at room temperature, they have a moister, tenderer texture than butter cakes. Try David Leibowitz’s genre-defining ginger cake with peanut or vegetable oil, or crack out the EVOO for this delicate pound cake with sherry.
Divisive in its highly un-kosher, un-vegan, unapologetically porky nature, lard makes, in my humble opinion, the most deliciously flaky Hong Kong egg custard tarts. But it has a couple other considerations, aside from flavor and provenance. It tends to produce more crumbly, less puffy pastry than butter, partly because, unlike butter, it doesn’t contain much water to steam and push apart the layers during baking.
Another thing to keep in mind: At room temperature, butter is solid; but it melts at 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, dissolving on your tongue. Lard, however, melts at a much higher temperature, and leaves a residue in the mouth some find unpleasant.
Just the idea of hot, foaming butter sizzling in a skillet makes my mouth water. But the fact is, more often than not I reach for the olive oil when sautéing vegetables and proteins. There are two main considerations here.
The first, of course, is flavor. If you’re cooking French, don’t swap sesame oil in for your beurre blanc. In fact, don’t make beurre blanc, or anything else defined by the particular flavor of butter. Instead, consider the cuisine and core ingredients of the meal you’re preparing, and choose cooking fats accordingly.
The second thing to consider is heat. Some fats, like butter or EVOO, have relatively low smoke points, making them unsuitable to high-temperature frying. Others, like ghee or vegetable oil, can get ripping hot without a wisp of smoke.
It’s not the flashiest, but sunflower oil can put a sear on steak faster than butter can, and it can do it without the risk of burning.
Growing up in a vegetarian Jewish household, I never ate schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), but I did hear about it. It was spoken of in hushed tones, an unspeakably delicious relic of our history. Even if you’re not vegetarian, it may be difficult to find schmaltz for sale. It’s not fashionable anymore. But it is still delicious.
And if you’ve taken the trouble to skim some from the stockpot or out from under your roast chicken, do not throw it out. Instead, mix it into your matzo balls, or sizzle some chicken livers and make your bubbe proud.
One of the greatest pleasures of butter is slathering it over bread. People think buttered toast is nice, but only because they haven’t had the courage to spread a serious slab of cold butter on bread, and slide their teeth through it.
Before you argue, Via Carota, arguably the best restaurant in Manhattan, has nipped this dispute in the bud by topping (room temp) crostini with massive quenelles of butter, draped with anchovies. It’s pretty close to perfect. But here I am getting distracted. Without butter, we have a few options to elevate our bread consumption.
The best thing to do to bread other than to slather it in butter is to dip it in really, really good extra virgin olive oil. In fact, if you have a truly incredible olive oil, be sure to do this, and promptly—olive oil deteriorates as it ages.
Putting avocado on toast has become something of a millennial pastime, and for good reason. If you can get your hands on a good avocado, it offers much the same pleasure as well-buttered bread. The unctuous fattiness, the silky texture, the perfect, yielding bite. In fact, the experience of good avocado on toast has so much in common with butter on bread it might just make you miss it more.
Other Butters, Nut & Not
Peanut, almond, cashew, maple, there are any number of substances called butter that have little to do with the real article. What they do all have in common is that they’re delicious on bread. And sometimes, it’s better to make a strong pivot than to go with any kind of imitation.
The Food52 Vegan Cookbook is here! With this book from Gena Hamshaw, anyone can learn how to eat more plants (and along the way, how to cook with and love cashew cheese, tofu, and nutritional yeast).Order now