Can I Substitute Oil for Butter?By: Bob's Red Mill | January 12 2018
Have you ever run out of an ingredient right in the middle of the recipe? Especially when it is too late to go back because most of your ingredients are already measured and mixed up? This happened to me the other day! I was baking some cookies for senior citizens for the holidays, and right in the middle of the recipe, I realized I had forgotten to buy any butter. Luckily, in my case, my friend was on her way over and grabbed some, but this inspired me to explore the ways in which butter can be substituted in various types of recipes. The short answer is that depending on the recipe, you can typically substitute about three-quarters of the amount of butter that is called for in the recipe. If you want to know more about how best to substitute oil for butter in your recipes, keep reading to learn which recipes you should and shouldn’t substitute oil for butter, and why oil might be best for certain health purposes!
What Purpose Does Butter Serve?
We always ask this question when considering substituting ingredients for other ingredients. The key to successful substitutions, especially in baking, is to ensure that the new ingredients serve the same purpose as the ones that the recipe actually calls for--and does not serve any additional, unwanted purposes. Butter and oil both serve to add moisture to recipes, keep ingredients from sticking to each other (or the pan), and contribute to a baked good’s end texture. Though they have these things in common, butter and oil are different, so they go about each purpose differently.
Butter owes its name to its particular fatty acid, known as butyric acid. This is one of the fatty acids that predominantly contributes to the texture and mouthfeel of your recipe differently than oils. The amount that a pastry will rise is typically proportional to the amount of solid fat in it, so the butter can help determine the levity of the end product. Butter also melts very evenly and helps absorb flavors around it, so this can help with the even distribution of various flavors in your recipe. Not to mention, butter has a delicious taste to it and can add that nice flavor to any recipe that uses it. When trying to substitute a cup of oil for a cup of butter, it is important to pay attention to which of these attributes oil can also provide, as well as which ones you may not be able to get from oil. Sometimes you can make up for missing links in other ways, or you may just need to use a different butter substitute in some recipes.
Why Substitute Butter?
Well, you may be asking, if butter is so delicious, why on earth would you want to sub it out for something else? Especially oil! This is actually a really easy answer, and there are a couple of main reasons you may want to substitute something else for butter (even if it is not oil). One big reason lately is dietary restrictions. Vegans choose not to eat butter, as it is an animal byproduct, although vegetarians typically do still eat butter, as many consider milking cows to be more humane than eating beef. Lactose intolerant people will also want to avoid butter, for obvious reasons, but oil would be fine for these people.
For vegans, most oils will be okay, but it is important to pay attention to how they are made. Some popular diets these days, such as the keto, Whole 30, or paleo diet also restrict the consumption of dairy products so butter would be out for those people as well. Some oils are allowed on these diets, but it will depend on the exact type, so make sure you check your specific restrictions and allowances before substituting! Or, as in my case with the cookies, you may simply be out of butter or margarine and not know where to go in order to complete your dish. No matter what your reason for substituting butter, oil is a really popular substitute in most recipes, so you will definitely be able to try it in some of your favorites!
Differences Between Butter and Oil
The differences between butter and oil are what make this substitution possible, but they are also what makes it a little tricky. For one, butter has ton of tiny air bubbles that help it keep its shape, whereas oil is a more compact liquid. If you can imagine the difference between mixing or heating butter or oil, then this will make more sense: you can mix butter to become a creamy substance, whereas oil is tougher to change from its original state, and heat simply vaporizes it in many cases. These two ingredients also taste different--your oils will likely taste similar to what they were made from, whereas butter has a specifically savory taste that we all know and love. This makes butter ideal for pies and crusts, where the butter flavor adds to the rest of the ingredients’ flavor profiles. On the other hand, oil is more ideal for moist, tender recipes like thick cakes, and can be used to complement different flavor profiles, like with coconut oil!
Best Ways to Substitute Oil for Butter
If your recipe calls for melted butter alone, then you have a better chance of similar results with an oil substitution. The melted butter and oil are both liquid fats so they will react similarly in the recipes. Baked goods like quick bread and muffins are two recipes where substituting oil is a good idea, and will produce very similar results to the original recipe.
In savory dishes, like sauteed veggies or meats, switching out butter for some olive oil is almost always a good idea for a more heart-friendly alternative. The olive oil will treat these foods in the same way, although oils cooked this way can have a strong flavor. Olive oil is nice for veggies and meat, but you could also use coconut oil or sesame oil to add unique flavors to your meal. As a nonstick device, vegetable oil is a common swap and works just as well. You can find this in easy spray cans in the baking aisle of your local grocery store! One of our favorite and simplest substitutes is just using olive oil to brush bread instead of butter. Oil still gives bread that shiny appearance, and when baked, that delicious crunch. Just brush it on with a knife and bake for a few minutes before serving up your bread.
When Not to Substitute Oil for Butter
There are some recipes where oil will work similarly to butter, but somewhere this sub is not the best idea. Do not substitute butter for oil when the recipe calls for creaming the butter with sugar. Oil will definitely not be a great sub in this case, as it does not carry the air bubbles needed for creating a nice, creamy texture.
How to Substitute Oil for Butter
Okay, now that we know when to sub in oil for butter, we should talk about how to substitute the oil correctly. No one wants to end up with an oily cake or bone-dry meats, so the right balance is important as in any cooking swap. There is not really a hard and fast rule to the right amount of oil to replace butter, but you can typically use about three-quarters of the amount of butter that is called for in the recipe. For instance, if the recipe calls for 10 tablespoons of butter, you can use about 7 1/2 tablespoons of oil. You can use a little more vegetable oil than you would olive oil, depending on which type of oil you prefer. Pay attention to how your dough or batter normally looks, so that you can determine if your substitution was successful or not.
Health Reasons and Concerns for Substituting Oil for Butter
No matter what your reasoning for giving up butter, most experts agree that eating less of it is a good decision for your heart and overall body health. Oils are not danger-proof themselves, however, and have their own risks. Vegetable oils have been linked to cancer-causing chemicals in some studies, and some people even believe that olive oil can be bad for you, although there are no conclusive studies to that effect in circulation. Coconut oil is good for you in many ways but has been mildly linked to the possibility of furthering high cholesterol in some consumers. We always recommend everything in moderation for the best results! If you do not have moral or health reasons for not eating any butter, a little can go a long way.
Vegans, paleo-dieters and lactose intolerant folks make up a huge percentage of the population, not to mention those who are trying to cut out saturated fats from their diet for other reasons. Though oil is not the only substitute for butter in cooking, it is a common one and a simple one to make. Try this simple swap out in your favorite cake, quick bread, and muffin recipes to see how it compares to the original recipe--bonus points if you try a few different oils and see which flavors work best!
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