Cooking with Dairy-Free Butter Alternatives

Butter is featured as an ingredient in numerous recipes—it's the main ingredient in cake frosting, for example, and is critical in making roux, a mixture of butter and flour that's the starting point for many French and Cajun dishes.

When you're cooking dairy-free, though, you can't use butter (or other milk-based products, of course). And while milk alternatives are on most supermarket shelves and work pretty well in most recipes, butter is an ingredient that can be tougher to substitute because different alternatives work better for different cooking applications.

Here are some rules of thumb to use in adapting recipes that contain butter to be dairy-free.

1

Dairy-Free Butter Substitutes for Sautéeing and as Condiments

steak with butter
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Use dairy-free margarine when your recipe uses butter for sautéeing. Dairy-free margarine also will work if your recipe calls for small quantities of butter—for example, a tablespoon or two in a soup.

Dairy-free margarine is widely available, especially in health food stores and supermarkets that sell a large selection of "green" foods (this includes Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and national chains with large natural foods sections).

Check labels carefully, however, as most margarine does include some dairy. Three dairy-free margarine brands include:

  • Blue Bonnet Lactose-Free shortening
  • Earth Balance Dairy-Free and Vegan shortening
  • Melt Organic Vegan shortening

These products work best as condiments and in recipes that specifically call for margarine or that use small quantities of butter.

2

Dairy-Free Butter Substitutes for Frying

Use oil instead of butter in recipes where foods are fried. However, make sure you use the right oil for the job.

The right oil depends in part on the temperature you'll use when sautéeing and on whether butter is being used to add flavor.

If you're going to be using a large quantity of fat over high heat, choose an oil with a high smoke point (the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke and burn). Refined olive oil (not extra virgin olive oil) and coconut oil both have high smoke points.

Conversely, if you're using a somewhat lower temperature to brown a food to get a light coating and add flavor, consider a flavorful oil like olive, sesame, or peanut.

3

Dairy-Free Butter Substitutes for Baking and Roux

When a recipe calls for large quantities of butter—for example, in a pie crust or a rich, buttery cake—you'll need to use a dairy-free butter substitute that's solid at room temperature.

While shortening and other vegetable fats that are solid at room temperature may have a bad reputation because they're so high in saturated fat, they do have two major culinary virtues that no other butter alternative can match:

  1. They are the best things on the market for making flaky baked goods like biscuits and pie crusts.
  2. Versions exist that are safe for people with both dairy and soy allergies—an advantage over margarine for those with this difficult combination of allergies.

Spectrum Organics makes palm oil shortening and coconut oil that are dairy-free and soy-free. Palm oil works well in crusts, while coconut oil makes delicious frosting.

To make roux, you'll want to experiment with the vegan margarines, such as Earth Balance and Melt Organic. Coconut oil and palm oil don't work well for roux.

Liquid oil also can often be used in place of butter for baking, especially in recipes where butter was melted beforehand. In general, 1 cup of butter equals 3/4 cup of oil. Coconut oil works well for this. You may need to add a bit more protein (in the form of an egg white, perhaps) to some baked goods in order to get them to hold together better.

4

Dairy-Free Butter Substitutes in Savory Recipes

Animal fats such as bacon grease are obviously not for vegetarians. However, they can be a potentially useful (and often overlooked) option for savory cooking.

Bacon grease is a traditional cooking medium in Southern cooking and duck fat is known as "Gascony butter" for its succulent taste. Schmaltz—chicken fat—and lard are other common cooking fats.

While bacon cookies are increasingly popular (especially in cooking blogs), these fats are more often used for browning other meats or for giving color to vegetables before braising or using in soups.

Storing them in the freezer can help extend their useful life.

5

A Word from Verywell

If you're avoiding butter because you're allergic to milk products, then you'll probably want to have a wide range of these substitutes in the house. Experiment with them—using your favorite recipes—in order to determine what works best in each recipe.

In the vast majority of cases, you'll find you can duplicate both the taste and the texture of a butter-containing recipe, but entirely dairy-free.

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Article Sources
  • Food Allergy Research & Education. Milk Allergy fact sheet.