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.
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.
Those who wanted to keep their margarine without sacrificing their health tried the new tub margarines, which don’t contain trans fats, though you won’t catch the word “margarine” on their labels. (Now that the truth is out about trans fat, health-conscious companies are doing their best to distance themselves from the margarines of yore by using alternative names; Earth Balance, for example, markets itself as a “buttery spread.”) But in the attempt to make a healthier margarine, we ended up with a spread that caused new problems. Products like I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, Benecol, and Smart Balance have taken out just the thing that makes margarine so valuable to the Jewish baker: its firmness. A silky spread looks great when you’re laminating a muffin (the go-to image in the commercials), but isn’t so great when your frosting slides right off the cake, or the cookies you made never actually solidify and everyone at your Shabbat table makes fun of you until you turn defensive and ask them what they’ve done lately to elongate their friends’ lives. Or so I’ve heard.
So, what’s a Jewish baker to do? “Go back to butter when you’re not making meat, or stick with loose oil,” Rackman advised. “When you screw with nature, you make something worse.” If your dessert doesn’t absolutely need to be pareve, that’s the simplest and best solution.
But it’s not the only one. In 2008, kosher cookbook czarina Susie Fishbein published Kosher by Design Lightens Up, which features some margarine-free recipes—recipes that don’t need any hard fat to be served in their absolute best manifestations. I bring up this one because her series is so popular that the mainstreaming of healthy dessert consciousness might be afoot. Older cookbooks, like Enlitened Kosher Cooking and Hip Kosher also try to veer toward healthier fats such as oil replacements and “light margarine,” though, like Fishbein’s, they never completely succeed. Cookies made from Shedd’s Spread fall apart. Cakes made from Earth’s Balance tend to remain batter. (For the most health-hazardous of kosher cookbooks, one that practically insists on the inclusion of trans fats, I nominate the popular Spice and Spirit of Kosher Jewish Cooking, which dares you to put two whole cups of margarine in its Flaky Rugelach recipe. Runner-up is a lesser-known volume my sister bought me called The Balabuste’s Choice, which asks that you jam two pounds of margarine into something terrifyingly called Nutless Szerbo; the “choice” the title refers to is, apparently, angioplasty or bypass surgery.)
And what of those of us who would like to get a dessert not merely right, but perfect? If I use regular margarine, the cookies will taste all right, and they’ll hold together for the duration, but they won’t taste as good as they could. And I’m not such a good baker that I don’t need as many advantages as I can get.
So, after years of thinking about this, I’ve decided to only make desserts that don’t require a substitution of trans fat (and that includes nondairy creamer). Sure, I can “make” fruit, which doesn’t require any kind of margarine or butter. But if I’m making baked goods, I’ve decided—and encourage you to consider—to steer clear of hard fats. If I’m using a mix, I use one that calls for vegetable oil. I don’t use frosting. I try to avoid pie crust where possible, and I eschew even non-dessert recipes that use the stuff.
The downside: I don’t have a huge repertoire of desserts, and I’m certainly not considered an accomplished baker. When I bake, it’s the pareve chocolate bread pudding from the Joy of Cooking, a book that is not known for its kosher-friendly recipes. But it does make great use of your leftover challah. And it is something you don’t really see at many holiday tables. Now, it does require some substitutions: soymilk for heavy cream, in particular (according to most standards, particularly ones that include the fats we’re talking about, soymilk is nutritionally superior to heavy cream). But while it probably doesn’t taste as good as a dessert that contains heavy cream, or even one that contains nondairy creamer, you also won’t leave my table with a water-insoluble veneer of trans fat slicked over your mouth and throat (and beyond).
Which is to say: There’s no great solution to the margarine problem, at least not one that I’ve found, other than finding recipes that don’t require you to choose one. And there are some of those in the kosher cookbooks, they just aren’t as delicious-sounding as the ones that use margarine. Science might come up with something that fixes the problem, but probably not soon: Science was sort of the trouble in the first place.
True, there is something to be said about serving your guests and your family a variety of treats, and I am always impressed with bakers who never stop trying to make the perfect dessert, no matter what the substitution costs. But there is also something to be said about not hating yourself after a meal, and trying to live past 50 while doing it.
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Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a correspondent for GQ and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a correspondent for GQ and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.