What Is the Difference Between Margarine and Butter in Recipes?

Learn how to differentiate the two ingredients—plus which to use when baking and cooking your favorite recipes.

Butter, shortening, and margarine are all types of fats that are solid at room temperature. They look pretty similar; if you unwrap sticks of each (especially butter and margarine) and guess by sight, you might not be able to spot any differences with your naked eye. But if you examine them like you might in chemistry class, the differences between butter, margarine, and shortening are very real. Whether you are curious about which is the healthiest option or simply ran out of one and want to trade in another for a baking substitution, learn about the differences between shortening, butter, and margarine for baking or cooking.

sticks of butter on counter top
Scott Little

What Is Butter?

Butter is made when cream is churned so vigorously, the butterfat solids separate from the buttermilk liquids. The resulting light yellow spreadable substance must be at least 80% fat to be sold commercially. The rest is up to 16% water, and often just milk proteins. Brands of butter vary based on the fat content; higher-fat butters tend to deliver richer flavor. (Irish Kerrygold butter, for example, is 82% butterfat.)

Most stores offer butter in several varieties:

  • Salted
  • Unsalted
  • Sweet cream, which is made with pasteurized cream
  • Whipped, a spread that's lower in fat and calories than regular butter because air is whipped in to make it less dense

Since butter comes from an animal source, it contains cholesterol and saturated fat. You'll find it called for in many baking recipes, as it adds nice flavor and great texture to cookies, pie crusts, pastries, and more.

What Is Margarine?

Margarine is made from oil, water, salt, and often emulsifiers, additives, and some flavorings that make it taste and bake similar to butter. By law, it must also be at least 80% fat, but the particular oil—which is listed among the ingredients—is up to the manufacturer's discretion. Anything less than 80% fat you'll see labeled as a "spread." Brands like Country Crock and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter helped popularize the spread trend during the 1990s low-fat craze. (In other confusing lingo, any product you see marketed as "plant-based butter" is margarine, just sold by a trendy modern name.)

Sold in sticks or tubs, margarine and similar spreads sold in your supermarket's refrigerator can range from 10% fat to 90% fat, which could clearly impact a baked recipe. Check the fat grams on the label: if you're seeking something similar to butter, it should clock in at about 12 grams of fat per tablespoon. Since margarine is made with oil instead of butter, it includes polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. (Since the FDA's 2015 ban on partially hydrogenated oils due to their impact on cholesterol levels, trans fats are very rare.)

pressing shortening into measuring cup with spatula
Kritsada Panichgul

What Is Shortening?

The term "shortening" used to only apply to lard, a semi-solid form of fat that comes from the fatty tissue of pigs. In the early 1900s, scientists created an affordable lard substitute with hydrogenated vegetable oil, which was sold under brand names like Crisco. Both now fall under the umbrella term of "shortening." It is called for in certain piecrust recipes, biscuits, and other baked goods due to the flaky, delicate, and tender texture that it offers. Another benefit of baking with shortening is that can help goodies stay moist longer than if you opted for butter. Unlike butter or margarine, however, it's completely flavorless.

We bet you're wondering, "since both are made with vegetable oil, is margarine shortening?" They're similar, but not the same. The difference between margarine and shortening is that shortening contains 100% fat and zero water.

The fat in shortening is mostly polyunsaturated, with a bit of saturated fat and monounsaturated fat in the mix. Lard is naturally trans fat-free, and since being reformulated in 2007, Crisco contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving. (This is a negligible enough amount to be listed as 0 grams on the nutrition facts panel.)

oil, margarine, coconut oil, and butter
Peter Krumhardt

The Bottom Line About the Difference Between Butter and Margarine and Shortening

The type of fat is the key feature that makes each of these fat sources differ—and gives each a purpose in classic recipes.

Texture, flavor, color, and shelf life vary based on which fat source you use. Cakes made with margarine tend to be denser and lighter in color, while cakes made with butter taste more, well, buttery, but can end up a bit less tender. Cookie recipes made with butter are more caramelized in color and crispier near the edges; margarine-based cookies are chewy but lack the same flavor punch. Piecrusts made with shortening instead of butter are a blank slate flavor-wise, yet are unmatchable in terms of the fork-tenderness.

Many modern-day bakers tend to prefer the taste of butter, but margarine can be useful to keep baked goods soft, while shortening creates a lovely flaky and light quality. Nutritionally, the difference between margarine and shortening is slim, especially if you consume these fats in small quantities. If you're aiming to keep saturated fat intake down for a healthier cholesterol level, stick with margarine. Otherwise, we suggest using the fat source called for in your recipe and enjoying baked goods in moderation. Of course, feel free to experiment with any substitutions, making note of any things you like and don't prefer about the replacement so you remember for next time.

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