Despite growing up in the Midwest, mine was a margarine house growing up. The only time we had butter in the house was during Passover, when we bought whipped butter to spread on matzah. The butter was kept in the fridge, and as a result was incredibly hard. Trying to spread it on matzah was like trying to spread a piece of cement. Mostly you ended up with many tiny pieces of matzah with butter crumbs on them.
My parents bought margarine for two reasons: it was pareve, so it could be used to make desserts for nights we were eating meat, and the conventional wisdom of the time said that it was healthier than butter.
For desserts, margarine worked just fine. I can remember my mother and her friends wondering why the local kosher bakeries couldn’t make good pareve cakes, when they were so easy to make at home using margarine. We made sugar cookies with margarine, and all manner of cakes and pies.
But sometime around grad school, I was making a recipe that called for butter. And I realized that since I was a vegetarian, and didn’t ever need to worry about dairy after a meat meal, there was no reason for me to buy margarine. So I bought butter, and I was completely blown away by how much better it was—as an ingredient it performed better, and the taste. Oh, the taste.
That’s the key argument in the butter v. margarine debate: butter has a taste, a flavor. If you use margarine instead, you’re losing that flavor. Margarine is tasteless. It may function the way you need butter to function in a recipe, but ultimately you end up with something weaker. That’s part of the reason so many kosher cooks now look for recipes that use other fats instead of butter, so that they don’t need to substitute margarine.
As for margarine being healthier than butter…it depends on the margarine. And it depends how worried you are about transfats. (Butter, like everything else, should be consumed in moderation, particularly if you are worried about your heart health.) But I’ve been converted to butter, and I’m never going back.
Recently I saw a recipe online that looked delicious…but it called for gelatin. One of my all-time favorite Passover dessert recipes calls for several different kinds of dairy, which is problematic when you’ve just finished an enormous meat meal. And then there’s the problem of being a vegetarian, and constantly inundated with beautiful recipes for chicken, Turkey, and even ham.
The number one way to get around the problem is to choose a different recipe, or just leave out the non-kosher ingredient. Google is your friend, and will help you if you need to find, say, a non-dairy turkey recipe, or a recipe for chocolate mousse that you can serve after a meat meal. Alternately, if the non-kosher ingredient is minor, you can just opt to roll the dice and try the recipe without that ingredient. (Ultimately, that’s what I decided to do with the gelatin recipe. Results pending.)
2. Margarine and Butter
When I was growing up, we never kept butter in the house. We only ever had margarine, and that was what we cooked with for all desserts. It wasn’t until I was in grad school that it occurred to me that margarine probably wasn’t any better for me than butter, and that since I was a vegetarian, I should try some butter. What followed was nothing short of a revelation. Butter is amazing. It’s completely fabulous. BUT I had learned growing up that you can make many fabulous desserts using margarine, and while some snobs will adamantly refuse to use a butter substitute under any circumstances, I respectfully disagree. Should you be eating tons of margarine every day? No. But if you’re trying to make a nice dessert (or a Thanksgiving turkey) and you can’t use dairy, it’s okay to get on the margarine train every once in a while. As margarines go, Earth Balance is the best. If you really can’t abide margarine, it’s usually okay to substitute canola or olive oil, about ¼ cup for every ½ cup of butter instructed in the recipe.
3. Milk Substitutes
Many a fine dessert recipe call for milk, buttermilk, or cream. Happily, we live in the days of soy milk, rice milk, coconut milk, and many many other alternative “milks.” I freely substitute these for milk in recipes where I need to make something pareve. I have friends who say that they won’t ever substitute anything for cream, but I’m not that classy—I will use some vanilla soymilk and call it a day.
4. Meat Substitutes
There are so many delicious meat substitutes out there I don’t even know where to start. I love Morningstar Farms, particularly their chicken substitues, and their ground beef substitutes. Many of my fellow vegetarians swear by tofu, but personally, I find it usually kind of unfulfilling. That said, I still use it in a pinch, and if properly marinated and cooked it can be lovely. My favorite, though, is a new discovery—Field Roast vegan sausages. Not yet certified kosher, these sausages are shockingly fantastic. I love them with eggs in the morning, in veggie pies for dinner, and roasted as a side dish. Seitan is also a fantastic meat substitute with a more substantial texture than tofu. The thing is, even though some meat substitutes are great tasting, they don’t really taste like meat, and I don’t think I’d serve any of them solo as a main course the way one could serve a chicken. I say limit meat substitutes to dishes where the meal is part of something greater. And experiment to see which of these you like the most.
5. Cheese substitutes
So, these exist, but I can’t really recommend them. If you’re looking at a meat recipe that calls for cheese, I would just use another recipe. That said, there are some people who love vegan cheese, so it’s worth it to try and see how you feel.