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Friday, December 11, 2020

Fat Substitutes for Butter (for Use in Baking)

from my collection of vintage holiday postcards

Whether you're making the substitution for reasons of health, budget, availability, or religious observance, substituting other fats for butter is not always a straight forward endeavor. 

Butter is more than simply fat. By law, butter must contain a minimum of 80% butterfat. The remaining components of butter are milk solids (roughly 2%) and water (roughly 18%).

An American stick of butter is 8 tablespoons, 1/2 cup, or 4 ounces. Going by our formula of butter's composition above, the fat content of a single stick of butter is about 3.2 ounces. And a tablespoon of butter contains about 12 grams of fat. We'll use this last info as a comparison for other fats.


Like butter, margarine also contains water, about 20% water/80% fat for stick margarine. Margarine spreads (tub margarine) can contain as much as 40% water and less than 60% fat. Knowing the water vs. fat content of margarine informs us that stick margarine can be substituted in equal measures to butter, while margarine spread may cause some baking recipes to fail. A tablespoon of stick margarine has about 11 grams of fat and one tablespoon of tub margarine has about 7 grams of fat.

Vegetable Oil (such as canola, corn, olive, or nut oils)

While vegetable oils are almost completely water-free, most can hold a trace amount of water, up to .10% (not 10%, but .10%). (Side note: In the processing, a small amount of water is introduced to the oil as a method of deodorizing the fat. The water rises and almost completely escapes through steam, carrying odiferous particles with it.) 

Because vegetable and nut oils are almost entirely fat, the measurement when substituting oil for butter needs to be adjusted. According to Joy of Cooking, about 7/8 cup of oil (liquid or semi-solid, such as coconut oil) is a substitution for 1 cup of butter/stick margarine. A tablespoon of vegetable oil contains 14 grams of fat. Therefore, 7/8 of a tablespoon of vegetable oil contains 12.25 grams of fat, very close to the fat content of butter. I should point out that many folks recommend that you can get by with 3/4 the amount of oil when substituting for butter, if you find that formula more user-friendly.

If baking cookies, you may want to decrease the quantity of oil even further. Go Dairy Free recommends using 1/2 the measure of oil as called for of butter, adding a small amount of other liquids as needed to pull the dough together. Other sites recommend 3/4 cup oil for 1 cup butter, such as Bread Dad's recipe for drop chocolate chip cookies made with vegetable oil. 


Lard is rendered pork fat. Like vegetable oil, the substitution ratio of lard is 7/8 cup lard for every cup of butter. A tablespoon of lard has about 13 grams of fat. So, 7/8 tablespoon of lard would have 11.375 grams fat, again fairly close to that of butter.

Solid Vegetable Shortening (named brand: Crisco)

Solid vegetable shortening contains the same amount of fat as the same dry measure of butter, about 12 grams of fat per tablespoon. As such, products like Crisco shortening can be used cup for cup as butter in recipes. Just note that if you are measuring by weight, hydrogenated fats weigh between 6.4 and 7.2 ounces per US cup, whereas butter weighs about 8 ounces per cup. 

Solid vegetable shortening has virtually no water content, making it ideal for "thinning" melted chocolate for dipping or coating (no water content to cause seizing of the chocolate).

Clarified meat fats

Bacon fat

From my 2014 post on using meat fat in cooking and baking:

"clarified bacon fat in place of lard or Crisco in pastry  To clarify fat, add fat to a small saucepan of water. Heat to boiling and simmer for 5 minutes. Allow to cool, chill and pour cloudy water off of the solidified fat. Add more water to the saucepan and repeat the simmer/chilling process 2 or 3 additional times. The final clarified fat has lost its "meat" flavor, and can be used for baking biscuits or making pie pastry."

Joy of Cooking suggests 4/5 cup (or 3/4 cup plus about 2  1/2 teaspoons) of clarified bacon fat for every cup of butter. A tablespoon of bacon grease has about 12.9 grams of fat.

Chicken fat

Clarifying chicken fat uses the same process as for bacon fat, simmering in water, chilling, and pouring off the cloudy water, repeating about 3 times.

Joy of Cooking recommends substituting 3/4 cup of clarified chicken fat for 1 cup of butter. A tablespoon of clarified chicken fat has about 13 grams of fat.

To simplify the above, here's a quick-chart for reference.

None of these fat substitutions will give you the flavor of butter that many of us love in holiday baked goods. However, you can boost the flavors in your baking with spices, toasted nuts, citrus zest, extracts, and even imitation butter flavoring.

In addition to substituting other fats for butter, most of us also know that you can use applesauce, pureed pumpkin and other pureed fruits and vegetables for butter or oil in baking. This post was just intended to clarify how substituting one fat for another is not so straight forward.


  1. Did you inherit vintage post cards or find them through the years? They are lovely.

    While I knew you couldn't substitute many kinds of margarine for butter, I had no idea that oil and butter amounts aren't interchangeable. I substitute oil for butter with baked goods that are baked in a pan (drop cookies are prone to spreading but the sides of the pan prevents that from happening), depending on if I think the butter flavor won't be missed. Now I need to rethink the amounts of oil I use in recipes! Thank you for the information.

    1. Hi Kris,
      one of the activities that my daughters and I really enjoy when we travel is sifting through vintage and thrift stores. A single holiday postcard is inexpensive enough ($1 or less each) and makes a fabulous souvenir from a day trip. Buying a postcard here and there has saved me from spending a whole boatload of money on other vintage items. During the holidays, I display them as decorations. I'll post a couple of others and type out the messages, too, later this week. They're fun to read.

      I learned the hard way that drop cookies don't do well with the full amount of oil. My girlfriend and I in high school were baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies and didn't have butter. We subbed oil. The cookies were really greasy. I use oil in scratch brownies, but always cut the oil back a little bit (instead of a half-cup, I use 1/3 cup). Brownies are a good one for the oil substitution because the flavor of vanilla and cocoa powder make up for any loss in butter flavor. Plus I can skip the "melt the butter" step that is called for in my recipe.

  2. Thanks for quantifying the butter substitutes. While I knew that you could not substitute equal amounts of oil for butter, I didn't know the particulars. I'm going to do some experimenting with this new information.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      I think experimenting is a good plan, as what matters most is how you and you family like the results. Another option is to substitute half oil for half of the butter, for when the butter flavor would be missed. My mother always baked cookies with half margarine and half butter as she liked the flavor of the butter but the cost of the margarine.

  3. This analysis is amazing! I just follow a recipe for cookies to make sure it turns out. I also like the price of margarine but lately Aldi has had butter for $1.88 per pound and that just can't be beat. I bought a ton of them and froze a bunch. I made a delicious batch of cookies using a new recipe this week and my family loved them. They were crunchy just the way we like them. They are called "Dad's Cookies" by Knorpp and South on youtube. I used a couple of Andes mints for part of the batch and the rest had chocolate chips and heath bar chips and I only made 1/2 batch. Very good cookies.

    1. Hi Alice,
      Your cookies with the mints added sound delicious! I'll look that recipe up.
      I'm glad for you that you were able to stock up on butter -- great price! It keeps so well in the freezer.
      Have a wonderful evening, Alice!


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