/ Food & Drink

Butter in baking: what are the alternatives?

The price of butter hit a record seasonal high in April, fuelled by consumer demand and limited milk supplies. If you’re concerned by costs, are there alternatives?

Butter prices hit record monthly highs in April following lower than expected milk production, pushing the price 25 per cent higher than it was just a year ago.

But it’s not just milk supply affecting price: consumer demand for fats is growing, pushing the price higher.

Studies re-assessing the link between saturated fats and heart disease have encouraged consumers to re-embrace butter in cooking and baking, Farmers’ Weekly say.

So as the price increases, how concerned should those of us who bake regularly be? And are there any alternatives?

Butter background

In baking, butter adds tenderness, moistness and smoothness to recipes – and a distinct taste – but, technically, other fats can also fulfil these functions.

So over the years I have experimented with alternatives, often under the guise of trying to be healthier – as nothing puts you off eating your cake than seeing exactly how much butter and sugar goes in it.

I’ve tried oils, cream and the odd vegetable to act as the wet ingredient and to provide the texture. But can anything really replace butter in baking?

What are the alternatives?

Many of the ‘healthier’ recipes I’ve come across – think those you find in ‘raw’, ‘clean’ and Vegan cookbooks – substitute avocados or coconut oil for butter, but on supermarket shelves these are often more expensive than butter.

For a moister and less perishable cake, substitutes such as vegetable oil are more common. I find this works well in chocolate cakes and is cheaper than butter.

Rachel Allen has a recipe for a butter-less cake, which i stumbled across at the weekend while looking for a sponge recipe, where water stands in for the wet ingredients – but I’ve not given this a go myself.

In terms of that old popular baking staple, margarine, I can’t say I’ve used it in since the 90s. I got lost in the polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and trans fat battles of that era – and stuck to butter, with an approach of a little and not too often as part of a balanced diet.

(And, yes, I believe that cake can form part of a balanced diet, as long as you are not eating it everyday!)

Anyway, because of its higher water content, margarine can’t be substituted like-for-like in butter recipes – so it’s not as versatile as you might think.

What about toppings?

Most cakes aren’t complete without a filling or topping, so what are the alternatives to butter here?

A simple glacé icing – of just icing sugar and water mixed together – can make a wonderful sticky glaze on many cakes.

And of course, whipped cream can work wonders on a Victoria sponge, with jam to sweeten.

Melted chocolate too can finish off a cake. I also sometimes use edible flowers on my cakes or just leave them bare.

My baking

I am traditionalist when it comes to many cakes, with Mary Berry and Lorraine Pascale being my go-to advisors – so there’s little chance I’ll be giving up butter anytime soon.

Of course, I’ll continue to experiment round the edges with new alternatives where they offer something new to my repertoire.

But I’m used to the reliable taste and texture I get when baking with butter. And if that means paying a bit more for it at the till, I’m prepared for that.

Is butter key to your baking? Or do you use alternatives like avocados?

What's your favoured 'wet' ingredient for baking?

Butter (65%, 217 Votes)

Margarine (15%, 50 Votes)

Vegetable oil (8%, 27 Votes)

Water (7%, 25 Votes)

Nothing – I like my cakes dry and unpalatable. (3%, 11 Votes)

Avocados (2%, 6 Votes)

Total Voters: 336

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Try comparing home-made shortbread made with butter with some of the shortbread on sale and the difference is unmistakeable. Obviously don’t go overboard and scoff the lot. On the other hand, I would not think of putting butter in a sandwich.

After struggling with the amount of hot fat needed to make decent fried bread, I now use just a little hot oil and butter both sides of the bread before frying it.

We buy raspberry iced (dough based) buns containing raspberry jam. I split then and butter the inside. mrs r does not!

I also prefer a clotted cream tea scone if it is buttered first, then jam, then a large blob of clotted cream.

I quite like butter.

I use sunflower spread when I make bread. This works very well and it is also good for greasing the bread tins. I tried using it to make an apple crumble – I had some left over from the bread, and the difference is noticeable. It makes perfectly acceptable crumble, but butter is very much better for this and Wavechange is correct when he talks about shortbread. Only butter will do. I don’t use it on my bread, since it is too hard from the fridge, and the butter/rapeseed combinations spread well and taste almost like butter alone. I use butter in moderation; a block will last me a couple of weeks or more with a nibble here and there for mash potatoes, poaching salmon and the odd pie crust.

I use olive oil for making bread.

I used to like New Zealand Anchor butter, but it just isn’t the same since it was made in the UK. That does make it easier to switch to the many alternatives to butter that are out there these days.

I know salt is a no-no with some people, but a tiny sprinkle of salt with a good non-dairy spread on toast, and I’ll bet many people wouldn’t know the difference.

I’m another one who uses olive oil when making bread. Fresh warm wholemeal bread with butter is lovely. I remember being told that warm bread was difficult to digest but I don’t find any problem. 🍞

Thanks for giving me this knowledge @alfa and @wavechange – I had no idea this could be done!

I use olive oil (light) for making cupcakes 😀

“which i stumbled”

Kind of ironic really : )

I went to the BBC Good Food site and I had to accept their cookies. Marvellous.

I stopped buying marge when I saw that the brands I can find at my local supermarkets all use palm oil. It is highly doubtful that there is such a thing as an environmentally friendly palm oil plantation, and there is absolutely no need for it when other types of oil will do perfectly fine and did until recently. I won’t travel for miles in search of plam oil-free marge, so it’s butter for us from now on. The quantities we consume are too small to be harmful to our health (although that of cows in the dairy industry… oh lord, nothing, nothing is straightforward), on the contrary. Our purse isn’t hugely affected either.

Olive oil is great as a dip. We often have that in a picnic, at home or outdoors, with bread plus some or all of what follows: tomatoes, olives, pieces of fruit, nuts, a bit of cheese, a hard-boiled egg, prosciutto-type ham, etc.

Did you know that margarine is grey? Yellow food colouring is added. My grandmother said it used to come in a tub – grey – with a packet of colouring that you’d stir in before using. Does anyone else remember this?


You may be able to see this good article which is fairly full on production, downsides etc. Palm oil is a growing problem – which is an unfortunate pun as more and more of parts of Asia go to a monoculture at the expense of natural habitat and animals.

Some people say, “that’s too much butter”, my reply is always, “there could be more butter”.