What's The Difference Between Butter And Margarine?

Find out which one is best for you.

Churning Your Own Butter Is As Easy As Making Popsicles
Photo: Photo by Sam Stowell via Getty Images

If you unwrap a stick of butter and a stick of margarine, you might not be able to tell the difference between the two. They are similar in color and texture, and even used in the same ways, but these two fats are completely different.

Butter is a dairy product, made from milk or cream. When the liquid is churned, the butterfat separates from the buttermilk, making a solid yet spreadable light yellow substance. But butter isn't purely fat; it is about 20 percent water and also contains milk proteins (solids). "Light" butter contains more water, for less fat and calories.

Margarine is an oil-based product. It is typically made of 80 percent vegetable oil and water and flavored to taste like butter. (Most margarines contain trace amounts of dairy. If you're looking for a completely non-dairy product, choose "vegan margarine".) You can buy margarine in sticks or tubs. Butter-flavored spreads are sold in tubs and usually contain less oil and more water, for a softer consistency.

At Southern Living, we're clearly in the "butter is better" camp. Butter is what we reach for when we're making pie crusts and biscuits, it's what we use to top mashed potatoes and cornbread, and it is, by far, the best thing to use when making frosting, pound cake, or cookies. (Here's the brand our test kitchen prefers.) But even we will admit that margarine has its place.

Health-wise, many nutrition experts say that plant-based margarine is better for you because it does not contain the cholesterol and saturated fats found in butter. For heart health, the Mayo Clinic recommends "a spread that doesn't have trans fats and has the least amount of saturated fat."

Some cooks prefer baked goods made with margarine because they have a softer texture. But flavor-wise, nothing can compete with butter—especially when it comes to cookies. As the dough bakes, the butter melts and browns, making the cookies taste nutty, rich, and caramelized. For flavor, nothing beats butter.

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  1. Popkin BM, D'Anci KE, Rosenberg IH. Water, hydration, and health. Nutr Rev. 2010;68(8):439-458. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00304.x

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