Butter is one of those ingredients that can be so central to baking that as soon as some people hear the term vegan baking they wonder aloud almost in a panic, “what about the butter?!” Many vegan baked items get along great with fats like canola, coconut oil or even olive oil. These types of fats work wonders for cakes, cookies, bars and breads. When designing recipes where we need something to act like butter, things start to get complicated. Solid fats like butter and margarine are integral to things like puff pastry, pie crust, shortbread, croissants, danish dough and certain cakes. This is because in these cases the fat is used to coat the flour so gluten doesn't develop too much and also trap air bubbles to enhance leavening and texture. The only option in these instances is to turn to a margarine or similar vegan butter that is solid at room temperature and gets soft as it melts so it blends to one cohesive mass of dough.
Vegan butter options as of this writing are pretty slim. If you're lucky, you have access to Earth Balance Buttery Sticks or Spectrum Spread (tub margarine is a no-no in baking due to its excessive water and salt content). These margarines utilize a blend of fats, water, starches and gums to mimic real butter. If you're unlucky you only have access to other margarines which use a process called partial hydrogenation to solidify vegetable (usually soy) oil. This hydrogenation process alters the fat structure which also happens to create compounds called triglycerides that are highly toxic to the body. Toxic to the point of where finding local, sustainably raised real butter would ironically probably be a better pseudo-vegan alternative in the grand scheme of things.
Non-hydrogenated vegan margarines aren't knights in shining buttery armor either. Lots of them use palm oil which, as of this writing, is currently associated with rainforest destruction due to its rising popularity as regions like Sumatra scramble to devote more land to its production without respecting the environment. Imagine that: a vegan option that actually leads to habitat destruction. There are efforts currently underway to sustainably cultivate palm oil but as vegans know, the best way to really know that you're not contributing to it is to just not buy it.
I've never been a huge fan of margarines because I find that they're so packed with chemicals and stabilizers that they frequently remind me of what it would be like to chew on a candle on a hot day. Have you ever done a taste test with butter and margarine? Butter dissolves away on the tongue and margarine overstays its welcome by a long shot, leaving a gummy residue lingering on. Loving a challenge, I decided to do something about this lack of quality vegan butter and give my best shot to making my own alternative. Lucky for us, this turned out to be much easier than I thought and I think I may have opened a buttery portal to give vegan bakers a little more power to innovate with the flavor of their recipes. White Chocolate Almond Croissants anyone?
I make Vegan Butter in large batches and store it in my freezer. The night before I bake I transfer it to my refrigerator or kitchen counter depending on the consistency my recipe calls for.
Understanding Real ButterTo create vegan butter we must understand real butter. Real butter consists of about 78% fat, 18% water and 4% milk solids. In Europe, the fat is usually even higher in proportion to the water. The milk solids are responsible for emulsifying the fat and water, adding additional flavor and allowing the margarine to melt softly. I decided that in order to have a tasty vegan drop-in replacement for butter and margarine in things like laminated doughs and pie crusts, I'd have to stick to these figures. And heck, I'd might as well do my best to make it taste awesome as a spread too.
Real butter comes from heavy cream. The fat globules in the cream are completely surrounded and suspended in a network of emulsifying compounds in the water. As you shake the cream, the fats get shaken out of their emulsifying network, find each other and join together. As they join together they start to solidify and the water can be drained away to a point. The result is butter.
In regards to fat I'd have to use something that's solid at room temperature and not be palm oil due to the environmental issues associated with it. Coconut oil is perfect for this application because it's available refined (unflavored) and unrefined (with coconut flavor intact). Cocoa butter comes in a close second but let's face it- it has an overwhelming chocolate flavor. So I developed a bonus White Chocolate Vegan Butter so there. Here's to hoping coconut oil and cocoa butter production don't lead to habitat destruction as their popularity rises.
Designing Vegan Butter
Coconut oil supposedly has health benefits over other fats but as of this writing it really depends on who you talk to. One camp insists that coconut fat is made up of medium-chain fatty acids that are small enough to the point of where they don't get stored as much as other fats and result in quick-burning energy. This camp also insists that the high amount of saturated fat in coconut oil isn't detrimental to health as other saturated fats. The other camp pledges that all saturated fats are bad and should be avoided. I personally think it's too early to say one is right and the other is wrong and happily exercise the everything in moderation approach.
It would be pretty easy to make a fat with the consistency of butter but how would I mimic the flavor without resorting to chemicals? I'm a firm believer in the power of curdling and fermentation. Fermentation and curdling involve hundreds of chemical reactions that produce a multitude of complex flavor compounds with a depth that can't be replicated by chemicals. I know that dairy products like cultured butter and crème fraiche involve a certain level of fermentation; you can even buy the cultures at cheese making stores and make it yourself. I wasn't interested in the complexity of fermenting before mixing my ingredients though. This would probably be more trouble than it was worth. What if I simply curdled non-dairy milk to build the flavor I was looking for?
Curdling involves adding acids to a liquid that causes the proteins to unravel like balls of yarn. As the proteins unravel, their strands line up, join together and tighten. This tightening causes tiny clumps in the mixture and also generates a large array of flavors that add a significant amount of depth to almost anything you bake it with. You may have noticed how much of a fan of curdled non-dairy milk I am due to how often I use it in my recipes on Veganbaking.net.
Non-Dairy Milk Curdling
Several weeks prior to these vegan butter experiments I conducted tests with different non-dairy milks to see how they vary in curdling in regards to taste. I ended up curdling a half cup of soy, hemp, almond, rice and coconut milks each in 1 teaspoon of apple cider vinegar for 10 minutes, then analyzing thickness and flavor. The results were surprising: Soy milk curdled the most and had the most complex flavor (think buttermilk), followed by hemp milk, then almond milk. Coconut milk and rice milk didn't curdle at all. This confirmed my theory that curdling is directly proportional to the amount of protein in the non-diary milk. This makes perfect sense after the explanation of curling above. This vegan butter was going to have to use soy milk. You could probably make a cashew purèe to use for this base if you're not keen on soy, however I haven't tried this yet as of this writing. Banana Vegan Butter doesn't use curdling to build flavor so this is an option for those interested in eliminating soy. It can also be made raw.
Due to this discovery of the flavor-building properties of soy milk curdled with acid, I'll be using soy milk exclusively when I want to build flavor in this manner from here on out.
Emulsifiers and stabilizersNow that I had the fat and flavor-building ingredients down, I needed to bring everything together into a smooth cohesive, malleable mass that could be worked into dough, creamed into airy masses for cakes and spread onto hearty toast. Emulsifiers are compounds that bind together oil-based ingredients and water-based ingredients into one mixture. I decided to use soy lecithin for this purpose due to its affordability and effectiveness. Xanthan gum was developed in the mid 20th century from the slimy grime that grows on vegetables in the refrigerator. It so happens that this vegetable gum is a wonder ingredient, acting as both an emulsifier and a stabilizer. A stabilizer can hold air bubbles and support structure.
You can forgo the addition of xanthan gum in these bread spreads if you're obsessive about only using ingredients in their most natural state. Keep in mind that if you do choose to not use xanthan gum the spreads won't be as malleable as butter and its alternatives so it may be difficult to work with in some recipes. It also won't be able to hold air bubbles when whipped.
I decided to walk a fine line in regards to salt in this bread spread. You may laugh at the measurement of ¼ + 1/8 teaspoon salt in many of the recipes below but I wanted the salt level to be adequate to taste buttery on toast but not be too salty to negatively affect being a drop-in replacement in baking applications.
I ended up fine tuning this formula and the results worked so well I developed five variants: Vegan Butter, Coconut Vegan Butter, Three Herbed Vegan Butter, Banana Vegan Butter and White Chocolate Vegan Butter. Use these bread spreads anywhere you would use regular butter or margarine. I must say I'm baffled as to why this hasn't been done before and promptly placed on the market. A vegan butter that doesn't use space-age ingredients would surely fly off store shelves, even if it were relatively expensive.
When making these vegan butters it's highly recommended that you use a silicone mold like the Tovolo King Cube Extra Large Silicone Ice Cube Tray. This will allow you to make gorgeous butter cubes that can easily be slid out of the molds.
This is regular 'ol Vegan Butter that's designed to mimic your favorite commercial variant. Use it wherever you use butter or vegan butter. Vegan Butter is designed to mimic real butter in vegan baking applications. Like real butter, Vegan Butter is more solid than tub margarine and not as spreadable. This is so it can perform optimally in vegan baking applications. If your goal is to have a conveniently softer, spreadable Vegan Butter, swap out 1 Tablespoon of the coconut oil with 1 additional Tablespoon canola, safflower or sunflower oil.
Regular Vegan Butter
¼ cup + 2 teaspoons soy milk
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
¼ + 1/8 teaspoon salt
½ cup + 2 Tablespoons + 1 teaspoon refined coconut oil, melted
1 Tablespoon canola oil, safflower oil or sunflower oil
1 teaspoon liquid soy lecithin -or- liquid sunflower lecithin -or- 2 ¼ teaspoons soy lecithin granules
¼ teaspoon xanthan gum
Place the soy milk, apple cider vinegar and salt in a small cup and whisk together with a fork. Let it sit for about 10 minutes so the mixture curdles.
Melt the coconut oil in a microwave so it's barely melted and as close to room temperature as possible. Measure it and add it and the canola oil to a food processor. Making smooth vegan butter is dependent on the mixture solidifying as quickly as possible after it's mixed. This is why it's important to make sure your coconut oil is as close to room temperature as possible before you mix it with the rest of the ingredients.
Add the soy milk mixture, soy lecithin and xanthan gum to the food processor. Process for 2 minutes, scraping down the sides halfway through the duration. Pour the mixture into a mold and place it in the freezer to solidify. An ice cube mold works well. The vegan butter should be ready to use in about an hour. Store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month or wrapped in plastic wrap in the freezer for up to 1 year. Makes 1 cup (215 grams), or the equivalent of 2 sticks vegan butter.
For more vegan butter recipes go to the Vegan Butter section.