In the interest of improving our cholesterol numbers, many have made the switch from butter (which is high in saturated fat) to margarine (which has more of the “good” monounsaturated fats).
However, when it comes to cooking—and especially baking— that switch isn’t necessarily the best move. It’s one thing to spread a little margarine on a piece of toast or melt some to pour over popcorn. But when you’re baking, butter triumphs over margarine every time.
For cakes, cookies, and pastries, butter (unsalted, that is) provides richer flavor. (It begins as cream, after all, and margarine is made from vegetable oil.) Butter’s high fat content is also what gives baked goods their texture. Margarine, which can contain more water and less fat, may make thin cookies that spread out while baking (and may burn).
Butter is also the better choice for frying. Because it’s more resistant to being broken down by heat, says noted food scientist Harold McGee in his cook’s bible On Food and Cooking, butter doesn’t become gummy the way unsaturated oils do.
If you’re still sold on using margarine, make sure you read the nutrition label. If you see “hydrogenated,” that means the product contains trans fatty acids. Many stick margarines include these enemies of good cholesterol. So choose a tub margarine that hasn’t been hydrogenated.