Butter Is Best 2013-01-30

Let's go back in time a few years. It's probably 2009 or 2010, and we're at our friend Steve's(some of you might remember him) house. They've made brownies! yay! this is going to be great!.

The brownies look as expected, the top has the sort of semi-glossy top that forms, the interior is the sort of dense crumb you'd expect to see. However, the first bite goes horribly wrong. There is cholocate flavor, but it's covered up by a waxy funk.

Our hosts immediately note that these brownies are not good.

"I followed the directions on the box. I'm not sure what happened", Steve's (now ex) wife said.

She checks the directions to see if she missed anything. The directions for these (and most) brownies are to mix vegetable oil, eggs, and water with the powdered mix. She shrugs and assumes her eggs were bad.

I actually already know what the problem is, and head over to her pantry and pull out their vegetable oil. It's a large container, maybe 1.5 liters, nearly full. It appears to have been purchased maybe 3 years prior, and was probably opened around that time. I take a sniff of it. It smells like crayons.

I say, "Your oil is rancid"

"Vegetable oil goes bad?!", Steve's wife replies.

Yes. Vegetable oil goes bad. You really don't have very much time before it does, either. You can delay it from going rancid by stashing it in the refridgerator. But buying large containers of cooking oil is generally not a good idea unless you plan on doing some deep frying.

But wait, this story is about butter. Where is the butter?!

They tossed their rancid vegetable oil that night and called a few weeks later.

"I started making brownies and am out of vegetable oil!"

"Use butter", I reply

"But the directions! You can never violate the directions! My mom spent thirty years in juvie for that!", She counters

The reason the directions are written that way has less to do with the virtues of vegetable oil in a brownie (of which there are none), than with current and past fads. Butter has been mostly out of style for decades, hated on by health nuts who say that margarine or polyunsaturated vegetable oils are best. Boxed mixes also want to appear to be a good value, vegetable oil is significantly cheaper than butter.

She reluctantly makes the brownies with butter. She calls back later, telling me that these are the best brownies she's ever tasted, way better than ones made following the directions on the box(even with non-rancid oil).

Basically, the lesson is that butter is magic.

Why though? Why is butter so much better here?

There are multiple causes, though the most important is actually butter's melting point.

Butter is a soft solid at room temperature, but it melts a just a bit below human body temperature. This means each bite starts out as tender, and then the butter starts to melt in your mouth carrying flavor and the appearance of moistness.

Let's examine alternatives in our brownies to see how they stack up against the butter.

The vegetable oil called for in the directions has a melting point far below human body temperature, this leads to the brownie feeling less tender, and, were it not for the special chemicals they add to the brownie mix, the oil would actually mostly leak out or pool, leaving parts of the brownie tough.

Shortening and lard both have melting temperatures just above, or a ways above, human body temperature. They make tender brownies, but they sort of leave a weird feeling in your mouth because the fat isn't melting. This mostly manifests in the brownie being called a bit 'dry', even though it's really not any less moist than the other brownies.

Margarine comes in two basic forms, those still made with hydrogenated oils, and those that avoid them by suspending vegetable oil in various binding agents to simulate the desired texture. Margarine with hydrogenated oils will make a tender and moist brownie, but will contain very unhealthy trans-fats. The other margarine will usually end up having its binding agents squeeze their oil out in the heat of the oven and make something similar to the vegetable oil brownies.

The butter-is-better thing actually holds true for almost every baked good. Butter has its own, rich, subtle flavor, and imparts the best mouth-feel possible.

So, a quick recap:

  • Butter is best because melts in your mouth.
  • Margarine is either terrible for you or unsuitable for baking.
  • Avoid rancid oils entirely, you can tell if your oil is rancid by smelling it. A fully refined oil should smell like nothing. If it smells like crayons or fishy throw it away. non-refined oils will have own characteristic smell, but waxiness or fishiness is usually an indicator of rancidity.
  • Don't be afraid or ashamed of violating directions to make food better.

But wait, my sister married a vegan!, no butter allowed!!! D:

Is there any hope?

There is actually one plant-based oil that solid at room temperature (for most people, anyway), but also melts in your mouth. You can use refined coconut oil in your baked goods in place of the butter and the result will be quite excellent. The main problem with it is that it's melting point is 76F / 24C. It seems a lot of people consider higher temperatures acceptable for their homes and offices. These people are secretly cold-blooded lizards and must be watched closely, but the problem of having the goodness melt out of your baked good requires you take some care to ensure they don't get above that temperature after their initial cooling.

May more than just butter melt on your tongue,

Sarah