What is the Difference Between Butter and Margarine?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

The differences between butter and margarine are sometimes described as nominal, generally by supporters of margarine, or significantly different, as reported by pro-butter or health experts. There are several articles of dubious authenticity floating around the Internet which even claim that margarine is only one molecule away from becoming plastic. The most basic difference between these two substances, however, is that butter is derived from animal fat while margarine is derived from hydrogenated vegetable oils.


Butter is a much older food product than margarine. Butter is produced from the fatty cream of cow's milk, although other animal milks can be used. The fat molecules are usually held in suspension in the cream, but steady agitation in a butter churn causes the fat molecules to cling to themselves and eventually fall out of the cream as a thick mass of butter. Salt is often added to the raw butter, but is not strictly necessary. Churned butter is composed almost entirely of saturated fat, along with a significant amount of natural cholesterol.


Margarine, on the other hand, is a manufactured food product designed specifically to be a butter substitute in 1869. The early margarine products used beef fat as an ingredient, but most margarine formulas changed to vegetable oils by the early 20th century. The normally liquid vegetable oil is solidified through a process involving hydrogen gas bubbles passing through the mixture. The result is a solid butter substitute with no cholesterol and little if any saturated fat. Margarine does contain polyunsaturated and trans fatty acids, however, which many health experts consider to be unhealthy for humans because of their artery-clogging tendencies.

Butter and margarine differ in shelf life as well. Butter must be kept refrigerated in order to remain fresh for several days. Margarine should be refrigerated to maintain its solid form between uses, but it can remain stable much longer than butter. Butter, like many other dairy-based food products, can become spoiled or rancid without proper storage and refrigeration. Butter and margarine can both be used in recipes, but butter appears to be the default choice of professional chefs, while margarine is favored by more casual cooks. Butter is often more expensive than margarine, and the difference in flavor or texture between butter and margarine can be very subtle depending on the quality of the brand names used.

Butter is made from animal fat, while margarine is made of hydrogenated oils.
Butter is made from animal fat, while margarine is made of hydrogenated oils.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


Butter is healthier than margarine, by the way.


butter biscuits are yummy. never heard of margarine biscuits, actually.


Butter may take longer than margarine to melt in heat, but on the other hand, margarine will be the quickest to melt in heat as it has less fat than butter.


so can i use butter in a sweet potato casserole because it says to use 1/4 cup of reduced fat margarine?


@allaesans - While there are alternatives to cooking things in butter of margarine (olive oil for cooking, for example), you wouldn't necessarily want to use them for baking. Could you imagine the mess (or the taste for that matter) if you used olive oil instead of butter for a graham cracker pie crust?


@gameaddicted - The use of butter or margarine really boils down to the preference of the user. If you like a little more salt, then yes, you will most likely be using butter. However, many people say that margarine is healthier, though it's still not as healthy as straight up alternatives.

Either way, you are still working with trans fats vs saturated fats and neither can be helpful if you're looking to thin down. It's not something we all want to think about, but there are other alternatives.


Using butter or margarine in baking can greatly vary the taste of your final product. Whether you're using butter or margarine in cookies, let's say, can make them taste richer (butter) or a little less flavorful (margarine). At least that's why I think.

It's said that the salt found in butter makes things like cookies taste better because it compliments the sugar in them. This is also true with the chocolate and salt factor and using butter with chocolate to bring out the bitter or sweet cocoa flavor more.


While the actual origins of these are very different and may even sound a little gross to be frank, the fact is that butter has a a much saltier taste. Margarine won't necessarily be 100% vegetable oil, either. Many times you will see that margarine is about 50%-60% vegetable oil.

This often comes into effect with the baking process and one type might be better over another, but I'm not really sure what the difference is in baking - I often use a margarine product regardless.

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