While recently chatting with my sister-in-law, a born-and-raised New Yorker with old-school cooking methodologies, I noticed a cacophony of background sounds as she tinkered in the kitchen. She was whipping up her favorite egg barley casserole. In a cheery patter, she rambled off the list of ingredients starting with barley-shaped egg pasta, chopped mushrooms and onions, salt, pepper and a stick of margarine.
Yikes! I’m hoping that wasn’t the same bright yellow spreadable stick of trans fatty monsters our moms used in the Julia Child-era when they didn’t know any different.
The little ditty from my childhood still plays in my head: “Everything’s better with Blue Bonnet on it!” The butter substitute was a laboratory blend of plant oils and animal fats combined with a hydrogen atom, causing hydrogenation of the fats, creating a high cholesterol health hazard.
It was actually Michel Eugene Chevreul, a French chemist who laid a solid claim to the creation of margarine in 1813 serendipitously discovering the new fatty acid laced with glossy pearl-shaped globules during lab experiments. He named it acide margarique, derived from the Greek word margarites, which translates to “pearly.”
But today’s butter substitutes are savvy and sophisticated, spreadable and versatile, plant-based and healthy without harmful trans fats. Here’s a run-down of choices to suit your family’s dietary restrictions:
1. Almost lard-like in texture, soft and slick, Nutiva’s organic butter-flavored coconut oil contains a blend of refined expeller-pressed coconut oil, fermented sunflower, coconut and mint plants, along with annatto extract for the beautiful golden hue. This plant-based spread is just as delightful slathered on a piece of whole wheat toast, melted on a pile of steamed vegetables, or drizzled on a heap of fresh popped pop corn as blended in cookie or cake batter for a moist, indulgent treat. One downside: as coconut oil is high in saturated fat, use spartanly.
2. The trailblazer of modern plant-based spreads, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter has evolved from its original formula, with a healthier profile, including non-GMO ingredients, but still top heavy on sodium, and the saturated fats, including soybean, palm and palm kernel oils. Palm oil, in addition, if not sustainably harvested has been linked to environmental hazards like deforestation causing climate change, and a negative impact on the health of animals and indigenous peoples. So buy judiciously from ethical, RSPO-certified sources (Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil).
3. Earth Balance, the trending darling of vegan butters, has an uncanny resemblance to its cow counterpart in flavor, although it’s silkier and more malleable in texture. The original is a GMO-free blend of palm fruit, soy, canola, olive and flax oils, while other versions include soy-free, and organic. These are just as toothsome in baked goods as butter, along with sautéing, pan-frying, topping off a stack of pancakes, a baked potato, or blending in pastas and rice dishes.
4. Nut-based spreads are also gaining in popularity like creamery European- style cultured vegan butter crafted by Miyoko, the king of vegan cheeses. In convenient block form for measuring and cutting into pats or cubes, this cashew-based spread that also contains organic coconut, safflower and sunflower oils boasts impressive talents — “it melts, cooks, bakes and spreads like butter,” along with being palm oil-free, so it doesn’t take a toll on the environment. Whip up flaky biscuits and pie crusts, moist quick breads and muffins, melt-in-your mouth brownies, or a dandy egg barley casserole.
5. Intrepid cooks are concocting small batches of vegan butters in their own kitchens. The recipe and preparation are simple. In a blender or processor, combine coconut and olive oils, almond or cashew flours; almond, oat or hazelnut milk to suit your palate; cider vinegar, nutritional yeast, a dash of salt and pepper, and golden turmeric powder for color.
Recipe: Sweet, Seasonal Vegan Butter
• Ingredients: 1/2 cup vegan butter (coconut, cashew, palm fruit or olive oil-based, your choice); 2 teaspoons date or coconut sugar; 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon; 1/4 teaspoon each of cardamom and ginger; 1/2 teaspoon orange or tangerine zest; dash of pink sea salt.
• Method: In a glass bowl, blend ingredients well. Transfer to a ramekin. Cover and refrigerate.
Recipe: Savory, Seasonal Vegan Butter
• Ingredients: 1/2 cup vegan butter (your choice); 1/2 teaspoon each of chopped thyme, rosemary and sage; 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest; dash of black pepper, pink sea salt and garlic salt.
• Method: In a glass bowl, blend ingredients. Transfer to a ramekin. Cover and refrigerate.
— Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and see more recipes at freerangeclub.com