We’re bringing back beloved Food52 column, The New Veganism, by our favorite expert-on-all-things-produce: Gena Hamshaw. A writer, cookbook author, vegan recipe developer, and registered dietitian, Gena will be reporting from the frontlines of the plant-based world, sharing with us all the new and wonderful ways we can work with vegetables.
It’s 1995, and I’m in eighth grade. Each morning I wake up, put my uniform on, and drag my stocking-clad tights into the kitchen for a toaster bagel. Once the bagel is ready, I trot over to the fridge and pull out a spray bottle of butter alternative (I can’t believe you can’t guess the name). And so, buttering commences: six or seven pumps of fluorescent yellow, salty, oily goodness. It soaks into my bagel and leaves a faint sheen on my plate.
I’m a child of the margarine generation. The fridge I shared with my mom was always stocked with some butter alternative or another, be it in a spray bottle, a tub, or wrapped in foil. When I tasted the “real stuff,” at friends’ homes or in restaurants, I was always suspicious of the texture (less homogenous than I was used to) and missed the flavor and saltiness I’d come to expect. What is that flavor, exactly? Let’s call it “butter” flavor. Like the fruitiness of fruit-flavored candy, it’s an intense and concentrated simulacra of the original. By the time I graduated college, when butter was making its comeback, I was well on my way to becoming vegan.
My limited exposure to regular butter may or may not be an asset in sizing up the vegan alternatives. If verisimilitude is the goal, then I can’t claim to being certain of what I should be looking for. On the other hand, the fact that I’ve been eating some sort of butter alternative for over three decades gives me perspective on how these plant-based butters are evolving. Because I don’t need my vegan butters to taste like “the real thing,” I can approach these products at face value.
What’s the deal with palm oil?
Another exciting thing happening in the vegan-butter sphere? Many are now made without palm oil. Palm oil is a major ingredient in a number of mainstream butter alternatives, and it’s been demonstrated to cause significant damage to native animals and to the environment in Malaysia and Indonesia, where it’s farmed. Earth Balance’s parent company, Conagra brands, has committed to greater sustainability in sourcing palm oil, in accordance with guidelines established by the RSPO, a not-for-profit working to minimize environmental damage and cost to communities as a result of palm oil farming. Even so, there remains debate around whether any palm oil farming is too damaging to tropical habitats, and so some consumers are now intentionally seeking out palm oil–free options.
In the name of vegan butter science, I tasted and tested ten plant-based butter brands. Some (Earth Balance, Smart Balance, and Miyoko’s Creamery) were familiar to me already. Most, though, were new—an illuminating peek at new technologies, new ingredients, and a brave new world of home baking possibilities. I was so emboldened by what I found that I dared to attempt baking my first-ever pastry (keep reading for the big reveal). Here’s some reporting from the front lines of plant-based creameries.
If breads, bagels, baguettes, and English muffins are your favorite vehicles for butter, you’ll have no shortage of options. Most vegan butters are spreadable because of the low melting points of their oil base—usually palm, coconut, canola, or olive.
Milkadamia, maker of macadamia nut milk and creamer, has recently released macadamia-and-coconut-oil buttery spreads. They come in salted and unsalted versions (worth noting, as unsalted vegan butter is tricky to find). In my tastings, I found that vegan butters with blended bases needed a little warming up to become easily spreadable, but that they do melt easily. The Milkadamia spreads have a mild, buttery, not-at-all-nutty flavor because the macadamia is present only in oil form (not as nut solids, like in other vegan butters). True to form, I preferred the salted to unsalted.
Forager Project’s smooth, creamy, and mildly tart cashew milk yogurt is already my go-to for plant-based yogurt, so I was excited to learn that the brand is now making its own buttery spread. Its base consists of whole cashews, coconut oil, sunflower oil, and sunflower lecithin as a thickener. Despite not being able to taste the cashews, I still found the spread’s flavor to be more distinctive than Milkadamia’s: It was milky and slightly sweet, like a custard (albeit a salted one). It, too, needs some softening at room temperature before becoming spreadable, but it’s quick to melt and great on a thick slice of toasted sourdough.
Wayfare Foods dairy-free, salted whipped butter consists of water and butter beans (!), along with coconut and sunflower oils. I get plenty of legumes in salads, soups, and other savory fare, so I don’t tend to seek them out in more unusual places (chickpea pasta, black bean brownies, and so on). I was a little skeptical about how beans would work in a butter.
But Wayfare actually emerged as my favorite, thanks to its bean-induced umami. The texture is slightly grainier than some of the other butters I tried, but I didn’t mind it. The graininess made for a spread with more heft and substance, that was surprisingly spreadable at room temperature. Swirling into it with my butter knife, without having to scrape away patiently at the surface, was a luxe surprise.
Like Miyoko’s Creamery and Forager’s Project, Wildbrine’s butter is based on fermented cashews. The cashews provide a mild, creamy base to the butters (as I was tasting, it occurred to me that “buttery” is my favorite adjective to describe raw cashews), while the fermentation adds depth and tanginess. The brand Wildbrine is known for their fermented offerings, including sauerkraut, kimchi, sriracha, a cashew-based “Neo Classic Brie,” and now, a cashew-and-coconut-based butter. The taste was similar to other butters in this roundup but with an added, subtle acidity which helped to offset the butter’s richness. A few tiny air bubbles dotted the butter’s otherwise solid surface (proof of its live cultures!), but the amount you’d need to eat for this product to have a probiotic benefit is colossal.
Om Sweet Home is a woman-owned bakery in Cliffside, N.J., which specializes in both vegan and gluten-free baked goods. The butter was developed from owner Dawn Pascale’s own baking trials, and is based primarily on coconut oil (no palm oil, no tree nuts, no soy). The package said that it whips like real butter, which inspired me to try it in a batch of vegan buttercream. I had to keep the buttercream cold (because of its coconut base) lest it melted, but I was happy with the rich, creamy texture of my frosting. (One downside: the brand is difficult to locate outside of the N.Y.C. area.)
6 & 7. Oldies but Goodies: Smart/Earth Balance & Country Crock
For the past 15 years or so, there’s really been only one vegan butter option. It was Earth Balance butter, which is still alive and well, readily available in sticks and in a tub in grocers across the country.
I love Earth Balance. It’s similar to the margarines and butter alternatives I grew up with in its assertive saltiness and flavor. Earth Balance spreads smoothly and adds moisture and color to baked goods, all at a reasonable price point (somewhere in the range of $4.50 per pound). As someone who’s been vegan for a long time, I’ve appreciated that the brand has provided a quality and affordable option since 1998, well before other brands were entering this space. Smart Balance is a sister brand to Earth Balance, and it features a similar ingredient list (canola, palm, and olive oils, depending on which flavor you get). The main difference between the two products seems to be one of marketing, rather than flavor or texture: Earth Balance announces itself proudly as being vegan, while Smart Balance is sold as a healthful butter alternative.
Country Crock’s margarines have been around for a while (since the ‘50s!), but they’ve recently released a line of plant butters—in stick and tub form—each with a different advertised oil: avocado, almond, or olive. As it turns out, palm or canola oil make up most of each blend, which makes me wonder about the taste differences, if any, between the three options. I only tasted the avocado plant butter, but I did like it: The taste was similar to the mainstream plant butters I’ve been using for a decade: salty and “butter”-flavored. It was slightly lighter than Earth Balance, though, in both texture and taste: Country Crock reminded me a little of the salted, whipped Breakstone’s butter that my grandmother used to keep around (unlike my mom, she was not a champion of butter alternatives).
Finally, I enjoyed a few toaster bagels (still a favorite) slathered in Melt Organic Butter. Its wonderfully silky and spreadable texture, and salty—not artificial-tasting—butteriness made it a close second to Wayfare. Like Wild Creamery, Melt has a butter that’s infused with probiotics, though I didn’t taste that variety.
The base of the Melt butter blends (available in a tub or in sticks) is coconut and palm oil, and its organic palm fruit oil is Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade USA certified and sourced from Colombia. According to Melt’s statement, this origin is supposedly less likely to contribute to rainforest loss, displacement of native people, or the loss of Orangutans or Sumatran tigers.
Miyoko’s butter has a whipped texture that’s specifically intended for spreading. I’m one of the few vegans I know who doesn’t love Miyoko’s butter on bread: In spite of its being a fermented product, the flavor is a little mild for my taste. I do love to bake with it, though, as it only comes in sticks and so is always plastic-free.
When I saw a claim on the label of Miyoko’s European Style Cultured Vegan Butter that the sticks can be browned, my curiosity was piqued. I transferred a stick of my Miyoko’s butter to a hot sauté pan, and waited patiently as the cashew solids in the butter browned, just as milk solids are supposed to.
10. Fora Foods
I was given a push in this direction when I spoke to Aidan Altman, co-founder of the plant-based startup Fora Foods. Fora is currently only available to restaurateurs, but it’s poised to become more readily available this spring. The first time I saw the ingredient list (coconut and sunflower oil, coconut cream, sunflower lecithin, and aquafaba), I was struck by the even balance of fats and emulsifiers, liquids and solids. It’s a suitable option for those who are looking to avoid palm oil, while being free of nuts, soy, and other major allergens. Eaten on its own, on bread, or on top of morning oatmeal, Fora was actually pretty mild-tasting.
I was, admittedly, more interested in putting my many butters onto bread than I was cooking with them, but I did sauté some green beans, gnocchi, and radishes in butters from Melt, Earth Balance, Country Crock, and Forager. I chose these four because they each had oil bases appropriate for high heat cooking (palm, canola, sunflower, and refined avocado), I’d enjoyed them all from a flavor standpoint, and there were some distinctions between them to explore (Forager contains whole, fermented cashews, Country Crock the addition of pea protein). The distinctions in taste, sadly, were ultimately less apparent in cooking than in sampling on toast, but all of the products gave my vegetables good browning and butteriness. So far, so good. Baking was next.
My experience was that the best brands for baking came in a stick form—easiest to measure and swap in recipes—and could be softened at room temperature without totally melting, most likely due to the specific emulsifiers and thickeners used.
I’ve used Earth Balance or Miyoko’s butter in cakes, cupcakes, quickbreads, and cookies for over a decade, but there have always been limitations. My vegan buttercream is inconsistent unless I add shortening. My pie crust is never perfectly flaky. I’ve made a lot of vegan cookies that were suspiciously oily.
Is it the butter, or is it me? Hard to say, but I’ve always wondered if the butter was to blame. Now, armed with ten different varieties of vegan butter at home, I wanted to make something new and ambitious.
Fora has the claim of being Michelin-starred chef–approved (it’s distributed to Eleven Madison Park, Tartine, and Larder in Los Angeles, among other high-end eateries). Yet it wasn’t the butter’s fine-dining credentials so much as Altman’s unwavering confidence in its similarity to real butter that struck me. It can brown, bake, clarify, and emulsify into a beurre blanc, he assured me. And if I really wanted to see what it can do, he noted, I should try to make a vegan croissant, the most flaky, finicky, butter-dependent pastry out there.
Fora’s croissants emerged the absolute butteriest of the four butters I tested (Miyoko’s, Om Sweet Home, and Earth Balance being the other three). All four butters gave me pretty layers of lamination, but my Fora croissants “shattered” into flakes, the way a proper croissant is supposed to.
Even though Fora butter came out the clear winner in the pastry contest, I was still pretty happy with the croissants made with Miyoko’s, Om Sweet Home, and Earth Balance. Miyoko’s butter gave the least airy, pillowy result, but they were nicely flaky. My Om Sweet Home croissants rose high and had a beautiful, honeycomb interior, but they were the least flaky of the batches. The Earth Balance croissants had the layers and flavor I wanted, but their interiors were denser than the others.
Croissants are a good example of a food I assumed I’d never have again once I became vegan. And that’s been okay with me—there are so many things I’ve discovered or learned to cook by becoming vegan, that I haven’t spent much time dwelling on the things I’m not able to eat anymore.
Well over a decade later, my diet is expanding to include some foods—a vegan scrambled egg, different types of alt-meats, and now, beloved pastries—that I’ve gone a long time without eating. I was content before, but it feels fun and exciting to have previously inaccessible foods figure in my kitchen again. Today, it’s flaky croissants and nutty brown butter cookies. Tomorrow, we’ll see.
Vegan Butter Cheat Sheet
Palm oil–free: Om Sweet Home Non-Dairy Butter Alternative, Miyoko’s Creamery Organic Vegan Butter, Fora Butter, Wayfare Foods Dairy Free Butter, Wildbrine Creamery European-Style Butter Alternative, Forager’s Project Buttery Spread, Milkadamia Buttery Spread
Best for baking: Om Sweet Home Non-Dairy Butter Alternative, Miyoko’s Creamery Organic Vegan Butter, Fora Butter, Melt Organic Butter Sticks, Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Sticks, Country Crock Avocado Oil Plant Butter Sticks
Best for spreading: Earth Balance Organic Whipped Buttery Spread, Wayfare Foods Dairy Free Butter, Milkadamia Buttery Spread, Wildbrine Creamery European-Style Butter Alternative, Forager’s Project Buttery Spread, Melt Organic Rich & Creamy Butter
Best for browning: Miyoko’s Creamery Organic Vegan Butter, Fora Butter
Thank you for coming to my buttered TED talk. Have you baked with vegan butters before? How’d it go? Tell us about it in the comments!