Kitchen 101: The When/Why/How to Substitute Butter

February 3, 2014

Earlier this week, I shared this decadent cake recipe and received so many “wahooos!” from you all it made me blush, and it made me happy. Because it meant that the comfort of the cake had struck a chord with you…even though there were 3 whole sticks of butter in the recipe! To be sure this particular cake is a splurge around here; most of the time I try to keep our desserts a bit lower in fat and so I will substitute some or all the butter with coconut oil, coconut butter, applesauce, etc. If you’re peeking through the site, you’ll find that lots of the recipes use butter substitutes, and happily so!

But, sometimes I want to make something where there just isn’t anything like butter. The truth is that whether or not to swap out the butter depends on what you’re baking (cakes? cookies? pies?) and what you want the result to be. In the case of this Cardamom Cake w/Whole Pears, the crumb of the cake just doesn’t turn out the same when you try to cut out the butter. For other recipes, like this Meyer Lemon + Blueberry Scone recipe, coconut oil or coconut butter (manna) are great butter substitutes. 

So! For those of you healthy eaters/bakers like me, here’s a bit of a primer on when to use butter, when to substitute it, and when to leave buttery enough alone. And, when you do substitute, what to use, and how to do it so that your baked goods turn out to be the BEST:

Q: What does butter do in baking recipes?

A: Butter creates layers, adds texture, lends moisture, flavor and mouth feel to our recipes. Most folks know that butter is made of milk; basically delicious creamy fat molecules suspended in water. As soon as your baked goods go into the oven, the moisture in that butter begins to warm and expand, creates little pockets of air. The fat in butter traps air and moisture and results in a lovely, light texture and crumb in baked goods. You can actually see where these tiny pockets of air were created if you look at the fine crumb of a cake, or at the flakes of a croissant. If you were to use another substance (like coconut oil, that has far less water content) you wouldn’t have the same texture, or tender crumb. Butter also melts well and dissolves completely, which makes for a “clean” mouthfeel when baked goods hit your lips, (unlike, say, if you were to use shortening which doesn’t necessarily melt/dissolve completely during baking.) Lastly, butter tastes buttery! And that is sometimes exactly what you are looking for!

Q: In what types of recipes is the use of butter BEST?

A: Any time butter is a primary ingredient, you’re probably going to want to use it because the flavor of what you’re making likely depends a good bit on the flavor of your butter! For instance, if you’re making any type of pastry or laminated dough (croissants, puff pastries, and some pie doughs) and any type of cakes you want to be very tender and light, you really want to stick with butter in my opinion. Using another type of fat will do nothing to help the flavor of these types of pastries, and will only detract from the texture. To me, coconut oil croissants are just really disappointing and sad and the same is true for a coconut oil pie crust (though, for some pies if you don’t mind that the pastry is less flaky, this might be fine.) Many many commercial bakeries use shortening instead of butter in their cakes and pastries – it still yields a flaky dough because there is air trapped inside, but the melting point is much higher so your mouth might feel “tacky” while your tasting your treats. They do this because shortening is cheaper than butter, and many palates can’t tell the difference…but a healthy palate will every time. Here are a few favorite recipes where I just love using butter:

 

Q: So where should I substitute butter? 

Most baked good recipes require some fat, and for cakes, cookies, bars, and treats where this is less important (or the texture is less important) then I suggest substituting. Vegan scones made with coconut oil and coconut butter are excellent. In fact, I like them better than butter ones! In recipes that call for just a 1/2 cup or less butter, I’d say you’re safe to play with experimenting. This isn’t a hardline or anything, it’s just a suggestion. Here’s a short list of some of my favorite recipes that use one or more butter substitutes:

 

Q: What are some suitable substitutes for butter?

A: Butter is made up of about 80% fat and 20% water. The most suitable butter substitutes will be those that have a similar fat + water makeup. Some common substitutes are:

  • Coconut oil/Coconut butter (manna): this is my FAVORITE butter substitute, and I use it often. Coconut oil is just the oil of the coconut, while the butter is literally the entire coconut pulverized which lends an extra coconutty flavor to whatever you’re baking. You can substitute it 1:1 in most recipes and I like it in everything from cookies to scones, cakes, granola…you name it. Anything that calls for room temperature or melted butter because the oil warms quickly. I typically find that coconut butter produces a best result if it’s warmed before using, while coconut oil seems to work best if it’s cooled before using. 
  • Greek yogurt: I use this often in my baking, especially for these biscuits! You can replace up to half the amount of butter in your cookie, biscuit recipes with full-fat greek yogurt. By doing so, you’ll cut the calories and saturated fat in the finished product. Play around with using more or less butter/yogurt and see how it impacts the taste and consistency. 
  • Applesauce/Banana purée: this is more commonly used to replace oil in recipes, but if can also be used to substitute butter and works best in cake-like recipes where you want a light texture. As a general rule, you can replace up to half the amount of butter in your recipe with applesauce; if the recipe calls for one cup of butter, use half a cup of butter and half a cup of applesauce. This is suggested because you still want some fat to trap those little air molecules! If you don’t mind a more dense, moist crumb, you could replace all the butter with applesauce. 
  • Earth Balance: this is basically a margarine, or “vegan butter.” You can replace all the butter in a recipe with Earth Balance if you are trying to make a vegan result, or if you’re looking to merely cut the saturated fat + cholesterol in your recipe. I don’t use this often. 
  • Avocado: another substitute that I don’t use often, but it does work well (especially in cookies!) You would use the same method here as if you were using applesauce; basically you can substitute up to half the amount of butter in the recipe. Using avocado lowers the calorie content and creates softer, chewy baked goods. Really a good choice if you want to omit the dairy in your recipe.
  • Canola oil/Olive oil: if you have a recipe that calls for melted butter, canola oil might work for you. This is more of a “oh-crap-I-don’t-have-butter-and-need-to-bake-these-damn-cookies” substitute, because I think it makes for inferior finished product; higher in calories, lower in saturated fat, and nothing done for flavor UNLESS you’re making this olive oil cake! 

Do you have other butter substitutes that you love? Have questions about butter? Share them! And enjoy! -xo L

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7 Comments

  • Reply Linda February 5, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    thank you for your explanation of what butter does for the baked good and for sharing your hands on experience. this was very helpful for me.

    • Reply Lentine Alexis February 17, 2016 at 5:59 am

      My pleasure, Linda! So glad it was helpful for you! 🙂 Thanks for reading and enjoying!

  • Reply Kelly September 4, 2016 at 8:44 am

    Thank you for your help. I am going to try some of your suggestions for substituting butter.
    I’ll let you know what I think afterwards.

  • Reply Alicia February 10, 2017 at 9:05 pm

    So helpful!! Thanks so much for the knowledge in addition to the advice 🙂

    • Reply Lentine Alexis July 8, 2017 at 8:28 pm

      Thanks Alicia! So pleased you find this helpful! 🙂

  • Reply Heidi March 15, 2017 at 8:22 pm

    Used your idea to use coconut oil in my banana bread. It was wonderful! Thanks for giving me the idea and the confidence to try it!

    • Reply Lentine Alexis July 8, 2017 at 8:27 pm

      Wonderful! So glad this worked for you, Heidi! 🙂 – L

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