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Just Say No to Margarine

Jews have been hooked on fake butter for a century. It’s time to banish it from our kitchens.

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For observant Jews, holiday and Shabbat meals are traditionally meat-based—think chicken soup and brisket. Those who observe kashrut are prohibited to eat or drink dairy after eating meat for anywhere from one to six hours, depending on your family’s tradition. That puts bakers in a particularly difficult bind when it comes to dessert: How to emulate the delicious taste and consistency of butter-based baking without using dairy?

For many years, the best and simplest answer was margarine. It was cheap, readily available, pareve, and kosher. It looked, behaved, and even tasted like butter in recipes. But perhaps even best of all, it didn’t have butter’s saturated fat, fat that was linked to heart disease.

But that was back when we thought saturated fat was the worst fat of all. Now we know that’s untrue. It turns out that trans fat, the fat in traditional margarine, is pretty bad for you, too. And if we’re honest, margarine doesn’t taste like butter; it has the unsettling and insidious taste of an imitative product. But it’s not just its inauthenticity that’s bothersome. It’s the greasy consistency, the slimy coat it leaves on your tongue and throat, the chemical aftertaste that make this barely-food lubricant public enemy No. 1 for your taste buds, in addition to your health. Besides, there are better alternatives now. So, it’s time to rid our kosher homes of margarine, the yellowed menace we can no longer ignore.

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Invented by a French chemist in the 19th century, when Emperor Louis Napoleon III demanded a form of butter suitable for the armed forces and lower classes, margarine has been laying it on thick to convince the public of its advantages over its more natural (and better-tasting) older sibling ever since.

The Jewish love affair with margarine started in 1911 when Procter & Gamble pushed Crisco (its new “scientific discovery”) on every housewife in America, sending free samples to grocers and having “Crisco teas,” a phrase that made me gag until I realized it was more like a Tupperware party to introduce the stuff to women rather than a new kind of drink. Make no mistake: Crisco, which is labeled as “vegetable shortening,” is margarine. Any kind of hard fat is shortening. Regular shortening, or shortening without any qualifier before it, is lard. Vegetable shortening, a term created to highlight Crisco’s vegetarian quality when it debuted, is margarine. The only problem is, throwing around the phrase “vegetable-based” is misleading. The products of the earth that exist in this stuff (cottonseed oil) aren’t really “vegetables” in any meaningful way. Crisco and margarine are vegetables about as much as a cigarette is; just because it’s vegetarian doesn’t mean it’s a vegetable. But who could convince the Jews of that? They finally had a hard fat for their pastries. Crisco was an immediate hit with the kosher crowd. In the 1914 book The Story of Crisco, a smitten New York rabbi named Margolies is said to have noted that the Jews had been waiting 4,000 years for Crisco.

And hadn’t we? All we wanted was an opportunity to assimilate our kitchens a little bit, to not have to wait until the traditionally dairy holiday of Shavuot to try that new cookie recipe. Jews cannot live on fruit compote alone! Thanks to Crisco, and all the other pareve margarines and “vegetable shortenings” that followed, we were finally able to enjoy the dignity of post-meat desserts beyond oil-based honey cakes, now that we had a nondairy hard fat (as opposed to oil), the hardness so important for the structure and stability of baked goods. Jews were finally able to see what all the hullabaloo was about over pie crust now that they didn’t have to just stand by while their gentile friends employed lard for the job.

During World War II, butter rationing made margarine a more popular alternative across the country, and its popularity continued after the war ended. In the 1950s, no less than Eleanor Roosevelt endorsed Good Luck margarine for its “goodness” in a TV commercial. Some commercials focused on margarine’s taste, like this one, in which the dad from Sixteen Candles berates some poor woman for forgetting a bunch of picnic ingredients but ultimately forgives her because Imperial is just that good. In fact, margarine ostensibly tasted so much like butter that it could fool Mother Nature herself—and boy, was she angry!

By the 1970s, so much of our food was being created in a lab that the fact that margarine was too didn’t seem to bother anyone. It was time for Big Margarine to try to convince the public—with a straight face, no less—that not only was margarine more delicious, and not only did it not matter that it was a Frankenstein of a food, but it was even healthier than its dairy alternative. Since late 1970s, commercials for Fleischmann’s and Shedd’s Spread Country Crock implied that margarine was good for you because it contained no cholesterol. (This was back when we knew high cholesterol was a problem but did not yet know that high-cholesterol food did not necessarily cause high cholesterol in people—hence, all the confusion about eggs.) Margarine also didn’t have saturated fat, which health professionals had been warning us against.

While it doesn’t have cholesterol or saturated fats, however, margarine does contain trans fat, which has since been found to raise the risk of heart disease and has been declared by a Harvard study to be “the worst fat for the heart, the blood vessels, and rest of the body.” In 2006, when the FDA legislated that trans fat had to be listed on food labels, the public started to understand that the love affair with margarine had to end. “Trans fats cause high cholesterol and heart disease,” Florida-based dietician and obesity-surgery specialist Elana Rackman told me. “That’s why margarine is worse for you than butter.” Saturated fats are not good for you, either, but they’re not necessarily worse than trans fat. So, the idea that margarine’s fat was healthier than butter’s fat was dispensed with.

But by the time news emerged that margarine was an all-around imposter, designed to imitate butter’s taste without actually providing butter’s nutrients (there are some, you know) or its wholesomeness, it was too late: Jews were hooked. So what if that hard fat would hasten the death of an already genetically disadvantaged people? So what if there was mounting evidence that the harder the fat, the worse it is for you? We finally had cookies to serve after a meal! We had cake. We had pie. And those who were lactose intolerant among us—a not insignificant 60 to 80 percent of us—were finally able to have some rugelach! We weren’t giving it up so quickly.

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hikarugenji says:

I almost never bother with desserts after a meat meal, except for (homemade) sorbets or, on Rosh Hashanah, a honey cake. You could make a zabaglione, if you have a mind to it – basically, eggs and wine. Otherwise, my guests can wait an hour (the custom in my family) and have a dairy dessert. I use butter and milk, cream, yogurt, etc., – and never any non-dairy substitutes, not even soy milk. I don’t like substitutes. I’ve been married for thirty-two years and never in all that time bought any margarine. It’s disgusting – that’s good enough for me, and it has never surprised me to learn that it’s horrible for you. Lab-created products are horrible. And since we never evolved to eat them, why on earth would they be good for us?

I’ve used pareve margarine when making my honey-sweetened challah for decades. Alas, what can I substitute?

hikarugenji says:

Oy. Vegetable oil? Maybe you could try vegetable oil (like peanut) mixed with a little bit of olive oil, for that extra-healthful boost :) (I honestly don’t know if this would work with your recipe, but most recipes I’ve consulted do call for oil.)

I have found that coconut oil is a great substitute for everything from pie crusts to cookies. I even use it on toast with honey or jam! The health benefits are great and my family does not even noticed the difference! I buy Nutiva organic extra virgin coconut oil from Costco in the 2.3L container for around $21.00 (KSA). Enjoy!

hikarugenji says:

Fantastic! I can’t wait to try it!

Lindsay Dearinger says:

You might try some of the vegan butter spreads that you can find at Whole Foods or other health food stores. I recommend vegan butter spreads to a lot of my non-Jewish/vegan coworkers who are just looking to cut out fats, and they claim they can’t tell a difference.

Lindsay Dearinger says:

Agreed!

Earth Balance spread – great for baking.

Marla Nathan says:

A great pareve dessert that always gets rave reviews is chocolate covered strawberries and chocolate covered banana pieces covered in chopped walnuts. Great Passover dessert as well — the healthiness of a fruit that also satisfies the sweet tooth!

thehealthylibrarian says:

Taffy, this article is fascinating! Hard to believe that we used to actually think margarine was “good for us”.

I won’t say these desserts are going to be taste the same same as ones made with butter & eggs, but, if you’re up for the ultimate healthy “no-dairy” Kosher challenge, then try out these guest-pleasing no-oil, no-margarine, & even no-egg desserts. Some even have no sugar.

I’ve served these all to company & they really are delicious. They are devoured quickly.

No-Oil Zucchini Walnut Chocolate Chip Bread: http://tinyurl.com/beoh64yN

No-Oil Carrot Cake Muffins http://tinyurl.com/aammpg4

No-Oil Blueberry Peach Cobbler http://tinyurl.com/ar9elfd

“Enlightened” Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding with a Vanilla Cashew Cream Sauce http://tinyurl.com/ajcvyy3

Stupid article. Except for Fleischmann’s unsalted, all of the margarine’s she mentions are dairy. So you might as well use butter. The solution is moderation in fats, in sugars, in eating in general.

Stupid article. Except for Fleischmann’s unsalted, most of the margarines she mentions are dairy –so just use butter!. A little margarine in a piece of pie is not going to kill anyone. The key is moderation — in fat, in sugar, in eating in general.

Wait. Margarine IS vegan! Isn’t it? What am I missing?

Earth Balance is a very good, healthful, vegan product. I wouldn’t say that about many other brands. I have no problem using it or recommending it.

AriShavit says:

She just couldn’t pass up the chance to get on the soapbox. (but … some margarine does have trace amounts of animal products.)

I can’t say too much, I do it too …

or accept that Kashrut is a bit silly, and that being able to enjoy delicious healthy meals – appetizer to dessert – with family and friends in celebration of Shabbat, Holiday, Simcha, or just a nice Tuesday.. is REALLY what is important!

I would be curious to know the role that schmaltz played in the early pre-margarine era.

Hmm, I don’t want the olive oil taste — does peanut oil have a PB taste? I may try the vegan butter spread suggested by Lindsay Dearinger — tough to change after 40+ years, though I’ve noticed the pareve margarine consistency has definitely changed in response to new trans fats requirements.

Avery Robinson says:

Good point @AirShavit, many margarines (or non-butter spreads) do have trace amounts of dairy products in them. If the ingredients list doesn’t have any lactase enzyme or animal fat, look at the heksher (kosher mark). There are many vegetable shortenings out there with an OUD on them, meaning that the Orthodox Union, the largest kosher authority in America, has found the product to contain a dairy ingredient.

While I admire veganism and support you, I think Taffy (and butter) puts forth a solid argument for the historically proven, ideal baking fat

i loved this article! im also in the same boat, someone once told me the chemical balance to margarine is similar to plastic, i swore it off a long time ago… i think the solution is that pastries by nature need to be dairy.

People say that about coconut oil, but others say that the smell and taste are too overwhelming for them. I baked with it once and found it unwieldy. I should have included it. Good point.

Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

Goyishe kop.

Balabuste says:

Agree whole heartedly (pun intended) with article. For flavor and health, I use butter (pastry and cookies), avocado (in chocolate mousse), coconut butter and olive oil (cakes).

Whoa! Who knew that, in addition to the riches this article would grant me, I’d also get these recipes. I’m going to try one next weekend (This weekend’s challenge is a kosher Transformers cake for my son’s birthday.)

hikarugenji says:

Is it really necessary to be insulting? It’s a fine article.

hikarugenji says:

I find that if you mix butter with olive oil, it successfully nukes that olive oil taste. I don’t know if peanut oil has the same effect, though I doubt it. But of course, using butter gets us back to the perpetual dairy/meat problem.

Hi, thanks for trying to help! I do need a pareve recipe, so butter with oil won’t work.

“They finally had a hard fat for their pastries”

Taffy,
They had plenty of hard fat for their pastries. Kosher cookbooks in the first half of the 20th century called for tallow and chicken schmaltz. They would put animal fat in their pies and chocolate chip cookies.

Beatrix17 says:

As the author said,
margarine was butter’s substitute during WW2 when margarine was
white and oily and came in a clear package about 6” wide and 7”
long, with a yellow center. Before the spread was usable, you had to
squeeze the yellow center which turned the pasty white glob a golden
yellow. It didn’t make the product more tasty, but it looked better.

I don’t remember how
long it took to do this, but as a child who had the responsibility of
making the margarine, it seemed forever. I made a vow then to never,
ever touch margarine again. Today, I’m so used to using margarine
that I no longer remember what butter tastes like.

I like to use virgin organic coconut oil for baking desserts. It’s a hard fat at room temperature, is stable, pareve, and only has a slight suggestion of coconut flavor. It contains key nutrients, too, and may have a positive impact on one’s whole lipid profile. I like the results better than when I used butter. Just .02

altershmalter says:

7 votes on this block for Earth Balance

Rick Cristol says:

Oy Gevalt! We, Jews, love our food, but we also love good health. Taffy is over the top on this rant and out of touch. If she visits her local supermarket she will see there are now trans free margarine sticks that are perfectly fine for baking. So would your heart prefer you to eat butter, with more than 3 times the saturated fat than margarine and 30 mg. of cholesterol (margarine has none) or margarine? if you want facts, go to http://www.margarine.org.

surfer_dad says:

My family did a blind taste test with quite a few choices; quality real butter, basic “cooking” butter, Imperial margarine, and a few tubs of different butter substitutes.
Earth balance came in JUST behind the best butter for almost all of us, third for one, first for one.

We like a good “butter” smear on our challah, and we almost always serve meat on shabbat. (Olive oil for all other breads, but it just doesn’t work on challah for us.)
It’s a no-brainer for us although I’m happy to try some of the other substitutes mentioned.

mouskatel says:

You can substitute oil for butter in most cakes. And the Kosher Palette has a great chocolate chip stick recipe that calls for oil and is super fast, tastes great and holds together fine. On top of the fact that there are plenty of flourless chocolate cake recipes out there that don’t call for butter.

I’m not sure why you make all these claims that desserts baked with oil don’t hold together. Oil is not a binding component- eggs bind. Fat is for flavor and texture.

surfer_dad says:

Wow
Having some standards about what you eat, where it comes from and what IT eats and represents is now “silly?”

mouskatel says:

Have to agree. Most of the margarine sold here in Israel is trans fat free.

Morally, cow’s milk is white blood. From a health point of view it is pus.

Bogolov says:

No. Kashrut is silly. The only reasonable basis for diet is taste and science.

Taffy, this is a great article in many ways, except that I think you have your information wrong when it comes to saturated fats being bad for you. This may be the conventional wisdom, but it is hardly scientific fact. Indeed, the real problem isn’t what fats you cook with (with the notable exception of trans fats), it’s the carbohydrates. The truth is that no matter what dessert you’re talking about and no matter what fats you use, the carbohydrates that comprise the bulk of it are really what are going to ultimately land you in the care of a cardiologist, diabetes specialist or name-your-specialist here.

Margarine is nasty and I have never voluntarily used it on its own. As far as my opinion – and this is my own – the idea of imitation dairy to serve with meat violates the spirit of the law. And that is an important consideration. Those “Viennese desert tables” are a medly of fake food. Cool whip is fake food. Coffeemate is worse than fake food. Learn to live the dietary laws if you are going to keep kosher. When they were created fake food did not exist and that went on for thousands of years- and nobody ate a cheese burger. One can create delicious food without fake. We have become lazy and spoiled.

This was an enlightening article and I plan to send it to food friends who are not Jewish – it may be info they don’t have. Thank you.

Hugh J says:

I remember discussions my mom and her sisters had in the 1950s pointing out how disgusting and dangerous this stuff was. If your reason for not eating butter is religious so be it but margarine is one of the most hideous foods there is.

Stick with olive oil, coconut oil and some butter.

Why be so rude? The article is beautifully written.

themotherinlawskitchen says:

Great article, thank you Taffy. Roots are important in cooking too – I
try to stick to unprocessed and use oils, eggs and butter when baking. Keep it real!

Is it really good for you, I wonder as I use it a lot. does anyone know, for sure?

SnorbertZangox says:

Why would you believe a Harvard study now, when you know that previous Harvard studies have been so wrong? The Harvard School of Public Health is the World’s leading purveyor of junk science.

I’m not sure why you would need to eschew pie crust – my grandmother made a knock-out pie crust with oil.

Lynne Shapiro says:

Most of the time, I bake with butter. But, having grown up with margarine as a child because my parents thought it was good for us, I actually do not like the taste of butter as a spread, not to mention the difficulty in spreading it straight out of the fridge. So I use a non-transfat substitute, for better or for worse. Anyone else out there who actually does not like the taste of butter?

For your information. Our company, Sinar Meadow company, is producing a low and also free trans fat oil palm margarine.
Don’t get your self ate up all the old misinformation about margarine, given by the business protector of butter.
Which is, five to ten times more expensive than margarine.
However, it’s all up to you to decide.
http://www.sinarmeadow.com

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Just Say No to Margarine

Jews have been hooked on fake butter for a century. It’s time to banish it from our kitchens.