Sunday, September 18, 2011

Butter vs. Margarine

For several months at work I had been claiming to be able to taste the difference between a baked good made with margarine and one made with butter. This claim was based on two instances: when I had a cookie that I knew was made with margarine and when I had brownies that I knew were made with margarine. More specifically, when I tasted the brownie batter. Being the scientist that I am, I knew that this was not good scientific method because it was not a blind study.[1] So I decided to put my taste buds to the test.

I needed to make two pans of brownies for a baby shower. So I made one pan using butter and one pan using margarine. While performing this test I made several observations about brownies made with butter versus brownies made with margarine relating to ease of handling, aesthetics, and of course flavor.
  1. Margarine creates a smoother and thinner cake-like batter which makes it easier to pour into the pan prior to baking. Butter produces a thick, viscous batter which does not pour into the pan but rather has to be scooped.
  2. After baking margarine brownies cut more cleanly and are easier to remove from the pan.
  3. Margarine brownies were much easier to frost as the frosting did not pick up brownie bits from the surface during spreading. Frosting the butter brownies proved to be quite a challenge as the flaky crust on the top of the brownies was always pulling off and mixing with the frosting.
  4. Margarine brownies, when baked and unfrosted, look like a flat, hard-pan soil sealed with a physical crust from rainfall droplet soil particle displacement. It also reminded me of a moonscape [2] of a dull uniform color but with tiny bubbles on the surface rather than craters. However, butter brownies had a bit of topography to them, with small, swirly, undulating hills of varying shades of chocolate brown. They possessed a flaky crust on the top (the kind often seen and cherished in box brownies though box brownies are an abomination in my eyes) and a glossy shine which were both lacking in the margarine brownies. In short, the butter brownies looked much more appetizing.
And now for the taste trial.[3] I've always believed that margarine is more easily detected in the batter than in the final product. But since I was pregnant at the time, I had to leave the batter tasting to Matt. I gave him a taste of butter batter [4] and a taste of margarine batter and asked him to tell which was which. He said he could taste a difference. They were pretty similar, but he preferred the smoother batter, which he wrongfully thought was made of butter. Test one failed. After baking I gave him the test again. This time he had no preference and again misidentified which was the margarine brownie and which was the butter brownie.

Now for my turn. I closed my eyes and opened my mouth. Matt deposited the center of a brownie in my mouth so that I could not detect the absence or presence of a flaky crust. At first I thought it tasted like my usual brownies that I always make with butter. But then a distinct tanginess crept up on my taste buds. And the flavor reminded me not of a delicious homemade brownie, but of a box brownie. Without even trying the second sample, I knew that this was the margarine brownie. The second brownie came. It was sweet deliciousness—a relief compared to the first brownie. This was the butter brownie. He gave me a third taste. This, too, was a butter brownie. On occasion I would have him give me a single piece of brownie and each time I was able to correctly identify whether it was made with margarine or butter.

While margarine is a cheaper alternative to butter, the extra expense is worth it for those with a fine palate.


[1] A blind study is one where the test subject (in this case, me) doesn't know which product they're being given (in this case, butter or margarine). See trial. A double-blind study would be one where both the test subject (me) and the test administrator (in this case, Matt) doesn't know which product is being administered. The advantages of a double-blind study are 1. that the test administrator can't try to influence the outcome of the study and 2. the test subject can't intuit what they're being given based on the body language of the test administrator.

[2] Matt says it's properly called regolith.

[3] While a double-blind study is preferred, we didn't go to those lengths. (See Note 1 above.) For this to be really good science, I should also have never had this baked good before.

[4] See Botter.


  1. It took me all the way down to the part where you said you were pregnant for me to realize that Leann was the author of this blog post (although admittedly the writing style is a lot more descriptive and poetic in a way), you can imagine how that might have come as a shock thinking it was Matt speaking! ;) Always had a preference to butter!

  2. Really, Ashley? The line "I needed to make two pans of brownies for a baby shower" didn't clue you in? ;o)

  3. Well that did strike me a little odd but I figured she had just put you in charge of making them so I read on without glancing at the title to see! :)

  4. I am pleased and impressed with your research. (I wouldn't have thought of administering a third taste, but that's brilliant.)

  5. Ashley, you're still off base. You really think Leann would put me in charge of making brownies for a baby shower?

  6. I've always been ridiculed for my preference to margarine. It's a shame people like me must live in the shadows. But someday, mark my words... margarine lovers unite!!

  7. You probably prefer mayonnaise over Miracle Whip, don't you, Michael?