Better Butter: My Answer to the Butter Wars

Rarely does a day go by that I’m not asked for my thoughts about the great butter versus margarine debate. One will clog your arteries, the other is one molecule away from plastic, right?

Of course, as is often the case in with nutrition controversies, the evidence doesn’t support either of these extreme views. Usually my suggestion is to have just a little of whichever you prefer, when necessary, and use alternatives like olive oil, peanut butter, or avocado whenever you can. (I’m talking about soft, non-hydrogenated margarine only though, never the hard sticks.)

Nonetheless, sometimes you just want a buttery spread. And if you’ve been cursed with high cholesterol, had a heart attack, or have a family history of heart disease and would like to lower your risk, I wouldn’t blame you for wringing your hands over the butter versus margarine question.

In my kitchen, we’ve gotten into the habit of using a homemade spread called Better Butter. It’s simply a mix of butter and oil. I first heard the name in a classic vegetarian cookbook called Laurel’s Kitchen, but my recipe is a bit different from theirs. You’ll find variations on this around the Internet, but this is the one I like best for spreading and occasionally cooking.

It’s simple to make, as long as you’re on good terms with your food processor, and think ahead to leave the butter out to soften up.

Put a half pound (1 cup) of softened butter in the food processor. (If it’s not soft enough, you can process it for a few seconds until it’s in smaller pieces and then leave it for a while to soften up.) Add 1.25 cups of canola oil.

Now process it until it’s completely smooth. If you still have little chunks of butter, it may need to soften up a bit or process some more. It should have the consistency of smooth pancake batter.

Now pour it into a container or two. I prefer to put it in 2-3 small, pretty, glass containers, so it looks nice on the table. We use one and tuck the others in the back of the fridge. After a few hours in the fridge, it will firm up to about the consistency of soft margarine.

It’s easy!

(Fun fact: This is basically how they make margarine nowadays. They use different fats and add vitamins and other ingredients to stabilize, preserve, and colour the product. They sound ominous but are actually quite commonplace. Even the food safety hawk Centre for Science in the Public Interest rates those additives as safe in its “chemical cuisine” guide. But if you prefer to avoid them, that’s okay too.) 

Just a warning… some recipes call for a cup of oil to every cup of butter, but I find this too firm for spreading, so I go with 1.25 cups of oil. However, after 15-20 minutes on the table, it’ll be back to a soupy consistency.

Why bother doing this?

  1. My chief reason is that we like to have a spreadable spread, and prefer this to margarine.
  2. There is a bit of a health driver here, although that’s truly secondary. The saturated fat debate rages on, but the best evidence we have right now says that replacing some of the saturated fats in your diet with polyunsaturated fats reduces your risk of developing coronary heart disease. In practice, one way to do that is to replace some butter with vegetable oil.
  3. I like to pan-fry with a mixture of butter and vegetable oil. Many recipes are fine with just oil, so that’s my lead option, but sometimes you want a little buttery taste. Scooping out a spoonful of this is just easier than doing the butter and oil separately.

A few more frequently asked questions:

  1. Isn’t canola oil toxic? People love to hate on canola oil, but truly, the concerns are unfounded. If you really aren’t comfortable with it, you can always use another oil like avocado.
  2. Why not just use olive oil? For dipping bread, dressing salads, drizzling over cooked fish, or whenever else extra virgin olive oil makes sense, definitely use that. But for cooking, depending on how hot the pan will get, another oil may might more sense. Better Butter is really for those times when you really want a spread.
  3. Can you make Better Butter with olive oil? Yes, but the end product will have an olive-taste and a greenish hue, which is a turnoff.
  4. Why not just use butter? A little butter is fine if you prefer that, but this is easier to spread and helps swap out some saturated for unsaturated fats.
  5. Why not just use margarine? Obviously, hard margarine, made from partially-hydrogenated oil, which forms trans fats, is a non-starter. No reason to use that. Butter or lard would be better, healthwise. Soft, non-hydrogenated margarine, as noted above, is fine. But I find many people prefer the idea of something less processed.
  6. Should I add lecithin? Some people add lecithin, a natural emulsifier, which keeps Better Butter from separating. I found it burned when I used it for cooking, and it holds together well enough without, so I keep it simple.

Some people are quite happy eating butter, and if you’re not drinking the stuff, that’s probably fine. But if you’re at high risk for cardiovascular disease and don’t mind a little kitchen project every month or two, you might feel better doing this. Plus it’s spreadable. Toast anyone?

Do you have another variation on the recipe? If you try it, let me know!

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