Substitutes

The Best Butter Substitutes for Baking (That Actually Work)

What could be better than butter? Turns out, these smart substitutes can come close.

August 16, 2021
Photo by Rocky Luten

Let’s start with the bad news. There is absolutely nothing on this earth that can truly replace butter. Not the most expensive extra-virgin 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 in your refrigerator 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. From vegan butter substitutes like coconut oil, avocado oil, and mashed bananas to dairy products like ghee that work seamlessly as a butter alternative, these ingredients can easily replace butter in savory dishes and baked goods (and some even have some bonus health benefits to boot).

What Makes Butter...Butter?

Butter, like most good things in life, is an emulsion. To make butter, all you need to do is agitate some 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 butter in certain recipes, it’s important 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. Of course, you can use brown butter as is—drizzle it over sweet potato ravioli, mix it into shortbread cookies, or even fry eggs in it for breakfast. Sure, this isn’t a substitute for butter, but it’s a delicious alternative to regular butter.

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 or shortening, 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. Ahead, we’ll get into the best butter substitutes based on certain types of recipes. Whether you’re out of butter or lactose intolerant and looking for a dairy-free alternative, there are a dozen different products that work in place of butter.

Is Butter Really Bad For You?

Okay we hate to go there. Maybe it’s not great for your heart but it’s great for the soul, so that counts for something, right? Yes and no. According to the American Heart Association, butter naturally contains saturated fat...and a lot of it. One tablespoon of butter contains, on average, approximately 7 grams of saturated fat. For context, the AHA recommends that individuals who need to lower their cholesterol should reduce their consumption of calories and fat to 11 to 13 grams of saturated fat per day (or two tablespoons of butter). Doing so may reduce your risk of heart disease and improve your overall cardiovascular health.

Of course you could be avoiding butter for another reason, like a vegan diet or an intolerance to dairy, or even just a dietary change. So even if you’re not out of butter entirely but are looking for a healthier alternative to the creamy spread, here are our favorite substitutions.

What Is Ghee?

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, you’re not entirely wrong. Ghee, a staple of Indian, Pakinstani, and Bangladeshi cuisine, is made by heating butter until it clarifies (meaning that 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), so it burns less easily. Plus, 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 homemade puff pastry.

Vegan Substitutes for Butter

There are many vegan butters available on the market (and we've rounded up our ten favorites 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. Generally, vegan butter are made with a base of nut and vegetable oils, such as macadamia, coconut, sunflower, or avocado oil. However, some vegan butters are nut-based and use ingredients like fermented cashews or coconut cream to create a creamy consistency and rich flavor.

Baking Without Butter

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.

Coconut oil

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.

Non-Coconut Oils

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.

Lard

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.


Sautéing, Frying & Roasting

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, 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.

Sunflower Oil

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.

Olive oil

A good olive oil is spicy, fresh, and voluptuous. It can add layers of flavor to a braise, or brighten sautéed greens. I use extra-virgin for everything, though some might be horrified to hear it.

Duck fat

Duck fat is delicious. Roast potatoes in it, of course, but also use it to confit everything from duck legs to arctic char. Or go really wild and bake it into savory cookies.

Schmaltz

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.


Un-buttering Bread

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.

Olive oil

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.

Avocado

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—nut butters may have butter in the name, but they 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.

What's your favorite butter substitute for cooking or baking? Let us know in the comments section below.
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Sam is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Find more of his work at arecipefordisaster.org.

19 Comments

abbas_muna September 1, 2021
Nice post
http://foodstrend.com/
http://foodstrend.com/
http://foodstrend.com/
 
Rubitone August 28, 2021
Everyone should know where their food comes from:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UcN7SGGoCNI
 
Carol-Ann D. August 28, 2021
Now, unless I've missed something, where are the 10 best vegan substitutes for butter? No matter how I've tried to connect with that list, it's just not happening. I have come to a simple, but unfortunate conclusion: There is no list.
 
Dashmore August 28, 2021
The coconut flavor of virgin coconut oil disappears in many foods but if you want to avoid the coconut flavor or need a higher smoke Point, refined coconut oil is flavorless and has a smoke point above 400F. It’s also high in medium chain triglycerides which are easier on your pancreas and gall bladder and may have other health benefits.
 
pmccarthy August 27, 2021
Hi Sam, excellent article, but was it supposed to include a link to your list of the 10 best vegan butters? If so, I couldn't find it. I like Miyoko's but am open to trying others.
 
JLH August 27, 2021
I wanted to add also that The American Heart Association was sponsored and became the power it is today because of Proctor and Gamble. They sponsored a radio show - here:

"Since hydrogenated cottonseed oil resembled lard, why not sell it as a food? Thus Crisco (CRYStalized Cottonseed Oil) was introduced to the American consumer in 1911. In 1924 The American Heart Association was formed. In 1948, thanks to the being the beneficiary of the P&G sponsored “Walking Man” radio contest, the AHA went national with a $1.75 million dollar windfall. A national fund raising campaign in 1949 netted another $2.7 million and the AHA never looked back."

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/you-are-what-you-eat/201604/when-tradition-trumps-science

It's outside the scope of a comment here to include everything we need to know but start here. Butter is NOT bad for your heart or your health. You might feel an immediate push back -- "Oh yes it is! We all know that!" We were all taught this truth and it's still repeated here on Food52. The author says it's good for the soul but bad for the body.

It is not bad for the body. Please start with the link above and learn about it. Your health is at stake. Everyone is different but we know, not think, but know, that the science we've all been taught was never supported by the facts. There were some correlations that were taken and made into the basis for our science that has led to more sickness and disease than can be stated. Once something is entrenched there are financial interests in keeping it that way. P&G funding the American Heart Association is one of thousands of examples. Panels and research and Universities funded by sugar and vegetable oil and the companies that make these foods. We've continued to base our nutritional recommendations and guidelines flawed data. As we've done so our incidence of heart disease, obesity and diabetes has gone through the roof.

Nina Teicholz, Robert Lustig, MD are good places to start, both have books and both are on YouTube. There is no reason to not educate ourselves, our health depends on it. I want to give so much more information, if interested respond and I will.
 
JLH August 27, 2021
Do not use butter substitutes at all. Ever. Real butter is healthy. Margarine and seed oils are very much the opposite.

Avoid hydronated oils like the poison they are. No exaggeration.

Despite what you've been taught, saturated fats are healthy. Oils that come in bottles are almost uniformly not with the exception of olive oil and to a much lesser extent, avocado oil.

Where possible use saturated fats for cooking.
 
Rubitone August 28, 2021
This is a load of malarkey! There is no legitimate, peer-reviewed study that concludes butter is healthy. If there is one, post it.

On the contrary, there are hundreds of studies pointing to saturated fat from dairy (butter, etc) as the main driver behind America's epidemic of heart disease (our number one killer). Saturated animal fats are also strongly linked to a number of cancers (Including breast and prostate), primarily from the high loads of IGF-1. Dairy consumption is also strongly linked to type 2 diabetes and Alzheimers. The great majority of the world's humans (nearly 75%) are lactose intolerant, meaning they lack the lactase enzyme required to tolerate dairy. The only animal that is designed to consume cow’s milk is a calf (and even they stop drinking it after 6 months). Dairy is NOT a healthy food!
 
JLH August 28, 2021
The psychology today article I linked explains how Ansel Keys came to the conclusions he reached, why he did so and the effects it has had. Further, correlation is NOT causation. There are reasons for the correlations you've cited.

Here's a suggestion for you. Rather than responding with a reflexive "that's malarkey!" spend some time and learn about why it might not be. After you've done your due diligence then come to whatever conclusions you believe are merited.

There are not hundreds of studies showing that saturated fat is the enemy. Not remotely. You have the choice to either learn and find that what you've believed your entire life might not be true or to stay comfortable and proceed as you are.

I'd start with the Psychology Today article. Then I'd read Nina Teicholz The Big Fat Surprise. I'd try to refrain from the reflexive sneer of "that can't be right! I have learned about this! The Government has it right!" and actually read and do your own research.

Early on it was Proctor and Gamble sponsoring the American Heart Association. They created Crisco, a hydrogenated fat that was pushed as a "healthy" fat. There were reasons for this but they're all available for you to learn about. We now know that there are few things as toxic as hydrogenated fats.

Then it was "cholesterol is bad, don't eat eggs! Never eat egg yolks." And later found, repeatedly, that eggs are instead very healthy and that eating cholesterol does not raise serum cholesterol. Then seed oil and vegetable oils, high in omega 6 were sold to us as healthy. We know know that they aren't, that too much omega 6 leads to many health issues and that we aren't getting enough Omega 3.

The psychology today article has some of the citations you're looking for. Teicholz's book is extremely well supported listing hundreds of studies and has been positively reviewed by entities ranging from The BMJ (British Medical Journal):

"Impressive...This book shook me...Teicholz has done a remarkable job in analysing [the] weak science, strong personalities, vested interests, and political expediency."

to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition:

"All scientists...every nutrition professional...should read this book" and in the body of their review said the following:

"On the basis of data presented by Teicholz in her well-researched and clearly written book, other changes in the dietary guidelines might be expected in the near future."

In her well researched book. Supported by study after study. Teicholz came at this from the same position you're in. She was raised to think as you do, as I did until a few years ago. She ate some fish, a little chicken, all the plant foods that are pushed as healthy and believed meat was bad. Her research took her in unexpected directions but she was open to following the science.

There are very good reasons for much of this information to not be as readily available as it should. Many of the bodies pushing the status quo are funded -- and this includes Universities -- by the industries that benefit from us continuing to eat as we do. We eat much less butter, meat, eggs than we did 50 years ago. Data shows that we ARE following the guidelines and yet we are getting fatter and sicker every year.

Try to leave your beliefs aside and try to engage with genuine intellectual curiosity. You have nothing to lose and stand to gain a great deal of information. Please don't respond with more of the same. I was taught the same things you believe and it's taken a lot of time, reading and an open mind for me to be willing to question what I was taught.

 
Rubitone August 29, 2021
More malarkey piled on top of malarkey. Those of us in the field of nutrition science all know Ms. Teicholz. She is is a fraud. She is not a doctor, nutritionist or even a scientist of any sort. She is a journalist trying to sell books. She is peddling dangerous ideas. She understands the human propensity for gullibility: we all want to hear good news about our bad habits.

Her books have been widely debunked and discredited by real scientists who actually ready and study the vast pool of data on nutrition science. You can find great takedowns of her writing (by real scientists) everywhere. Here is a good one by a fellow nutrition scientist: https://thescienceofnutrition.wordpress.com/2014/08/10/the-big-fat-surprise-a-critical-review-part-1/

You are, of course, free to stuff yourself with animal products as much you like, but I highly recommend you book an appointment for a coronary calcium scan as soon as possible. You are likely at high risk for an event.

 
JLH August 30, 2021
No, she is not "trying to sell books."

She wrote one book that she researched over the course about ten years. If that is the strategy for making money, it isn't working.

She is far from the only person to have pointed out the problems with the school of thought that started with Ansel Keys. I offered information and your response is to sneer. Her book has in fact not been widely debunked but that's not the point. You aren't willing or interested to take the time to question what you believe to be truth.

Your method is instead to talk about "stuffing" oneself with animal products and to make erroneous assumptions about my background. I pointed out how conventional nutritional information has changed; you didn't address that because it wasn't convenient.

Eggs were believed to be bad on the theory that eating cholesterol increases our serum cholesterol. This theory was then "proven" by feeding these foods to animals who not naturally eat them. When a trial was done on dogs, closer to us than rabbits for example, the theory was not borne out.

Correlation is not causation. Most of the evidence you are citing is derived from epidemiological studies. These can only show correlation, sometimes strong correlation, never causation.

As an example (that I am fairly certain will fall on deaf ears but in the event that anyone else is following this) there are factors that can explain the correlations. After decades of being told to avoid meat, dairy and eggs, many of the people who eat a lot of these foods also ignore other health related advice. They frequently smoke, don't get enough exercise, are often overweight, and are undereducated. Is it the meat or the bbq sauce, fries and soda causing the problem? You can present the numbers such to "show" that meat = heart disease without also offering the rest of the picture. Meat in whose diet? The person who eats fast food every day and smokes or the person who eats as healthily as they can, does not smoke, exercises, get adequate sleep and stress reduction and eats a four ounce grass fed, sustainably raised steak?

Your assumption that making the points I have should be equated with "bad habits" and stuffing oneself is the kind of internet posturing and sneering that is generally better avoided. You believe that if meat, dairy and eggs are part of a diet, they must necessarily mean the person "stuffs" themselves, doesn't exercise, lacks self control and/or is gullible.

Why do you think that to be the case and what is behind the ugly tone you choose to employ? Is it that changing what you have believed is threatening? I am sure it is but that isn't a reason to reject research and shout louder. Teicholz book does not provide an excuse or offer good news about bad habits. It in no way offers cover for bad eating habits, for lack of exercise, for smoking, for eating sugar, for gluttony. Quite the contrary, she makes very clear the issues that we have to address if we want to reclaim our health.

Have you never wondered why this country's epidemic of obesity and diabetes took off after the institution of the food pyramid? Does it not bother you at all that the American Heart Association was funded and got its start from Proctor and Gamble, the very company that created and sold Crisco?

That the research supporting your beliefs is primarily epidemiological? How do you explain the Maasai, for example? Their diet is comprised of meat, fat and milk. they are healthy and fit, diabetes, heart disease and obesity don't exist for them. They don't eat sugar, they eat minimal carbs, regard vegetables as fit only for their cattle. They should, by your theory, be obese, fat and sick. When they move to what we'd consider developed nations and start to eat the local diet they lose their good health and start to have the same issues as everyone around them.

The point I am making is that much more nuance is required than what you are willing to bring to the table. Eating lots of low quality meat with sugary sauces on buns, dressings with hydrogenated fats, drinking soda with that, of course that is unhealthy. The culprits though are the sugars and starches. We haven't evolved to process that much sugar. It taxes our pancreas until finally the individual becomes pre-diabetic, has metabolic disorder and eventually diabetes.

None of this is the fault of meat, dairy and eggs. Remember, eggs used to be vilified as much as you vilify meat and dairy. If we were having this conversation 10 years ago you'd be sneering at me and telling me to go stuff myself with eggs. Meanwhile, it is now accepted that eggs are a near perfect food (the nutritional breakdown of pasture raised eggs is better with the important addition of the hens living happier lives)

I cited a list of entities that disagree with you. I provided background as to why Ansel Keys was in error. I offered you citations and I can provide more. Your argument that "real nutritionists say you're wrong" is inadequate because many "real" nutritionists agree. Your food pyramid and way of thinking have been widely debunked. Many nutritionists know this and promote diets far lower in sugar, carbs, and vegetable oils.

A few more names for anyone interested: Dr Robert Lustig, Dr Jason Fung, Dr Malcolm Kendrick, Gary Taubes (Dr John Yudkin questioned Ansel Keys beliefs early on, he was a contemporary) and so many more.


 
DMStenlake October 10, 2021
What happened to moderation in diet? Eat your fruit and veggies?
 
Pete M. September 28, 2020
Well, butter is better for baking sweet things anyway (with occasional partial substitution of lard.) But I made some phenomenal savory mushroom-garlic rolls with whole wheat sourdough yesterday that used only olive oil; butter wouldn't have been as good. (Based on cinnamon rolls, but way tastier imo.) Same holds for focaccia and a number of other breads.
 
JV September 27, 2020
A lovely article... I enjoyed reading!
 
JV September 27, 2020
A lovely article... I enjoyed reading!
 
ritabquinn September 25, 2020
OMG- Miyokos vegan butter.... It's salted, cultured, browns, made mostly of cashews and is SOOOOOOOOO good. I prefer it over regular butter. It reminds me of the salted butter in France. It has the same texture, color and taste. Very creamy.
 
Bailey September 27, 2020
Enthusiastic second!!
 
Nancy L. October 10, 2021
Miyoko also comes in unsalted, which I used to use, but decided I preferred the salted for my toast, etc. However, I went back to the unsalted version to make mushroom gravy last night, and it turned out beautifully. So I'm sold on both.
 
Lois R. September 25, 2020
Olive oil in a small crock, chilled in the frig until spreadable, is a very nice on bread that does not want to be dipped into the liquid form.