Margarine, originally known as oleomargarine, is produced from vegetable – and sometimes animal - fats that have undergone hydrogenation to create a solid. Most “regular” margarines contain trans-fatty acids and/or saturated fats, which is no healthier than butter, but many brands have little or no cholesterol.
Margarine is convenient because it is spreadable even when cold.
In the late 1800s, a French chemist was asked to develop a butter alternative that would be cheap and not melt at room temperature. The intent was to create a product that would be useful in troop rations.
The substitute, which looked like lard, eventually received acceptance in the United States, and became popular after yellow coloring was added. Margarine today is relatively the same in price as butter, but is used more often.
- Tubs, bottles, sprays, and sticks are produced by a variety of manufacturers.
- Products include low- or no-fat, whipped, and liquid. These may contain higher percentages of water and air and should not be used for sautéing or baking.
- Salted and unsalted versions are available, along with gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, and organic.
- “Soft” margarine contains less trans-fats.
“Regular” or “hard” margarine can replace butter in most baking. By law, an 80% oil content is required, which means it can be substituted in any recipe that uses butter. These may contain some animal fats. The oil content is listed only on reduced fat products.
For the healthiest alternatives, look for labeling that states pure vegetable oil as well as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
- Refrigerate for two months or longer after opening and freeze for as long as a year. Unopened, it can remain in the refrigerator for several months.
- Keep tubs and bottles tightly closed to avoid absorbing odors from other foods.