I can’t even keep track of how many dairy-free butter alternatives I’ve tried over the years. Some of this comes down to pure chemistry: what type of fat works for a particular type of cooking. Some of this comes down to taste: which is why some of my recipes have part shortening and part margarine. A good deal comes down to access. As soon as I find a good alternative, my grocery store decides to stop carrying it. The options in my grocery, are not the options in your grocery. This is a moving target, but here’s where I’m at right now:
When I was a kid, we didn’t even have real butter. It was a luxury, reserved for rolls at Thanksgiving Dinner. Butter was too expensive, and health experts at the time claimed margarine was more “healthy” than butter. We used margarine (aka, oleo) for all baking. A good dairy-free stick margarine can substitute for butter most of the time in baking.
My preference is Fleischmann’s Unsalted Margarine. The salted version has dairy, so be careful. Fleischmanns uses a blend of soy and palm oil. I think this is why I prefer it. It’s also inexpensive, unlike some of the fancy options marketed towards vegans or other health concerns.
Nucoa Buttery Sticks are very similar to Fleischmann’s, but are not available in my area, otherwise I would use them.
Another option I’ve had to use lately when Meijer decided to drop Fleischmann’s Unsalted: Blue Bonnet Lactose Free. This uses all soy oil, and works ok. It doesn’t taste like anything, which is better than tasting bad, but not as nice as tasting good.
Earth Balance Vegan Sticks and Earth Balance Soy Free Sticks are options, but I really don’t like the flavor of either. Something about the pea protein/canola/olive oil combo tastes like celery. And they’re quite expensive, $5 a pound, as much as real butter. I make a lot of mistakes in baking, so I don’t need to be flushing that down the garbage disposal.
This is what we spread on toast, over waffles, a dab in the oatmeal, or on steamed veggies. Tub margarine is not for baking. It could work for making rice krispy treats or frosting in a pinch, but won’t hold it’s structure for baking or making pastry.
My preference is Smart Balance Original. It’s relatively cheap, is available everywhere, and tastes pretty good.
Shortening definitely has a place in my kitchen. I have a few 1930’s era cookbooks which use shortening exclusively, attesting to how well it works. Chemically and structurally, it works nicely in pastry and cookies…the trade off is with taste. It doesn’t taste like anything, so using plain shortening for sugar cookies or rice krispy treats will result in a bland product.
I have two shortening products in my house:
Crisco Butter Flavored Shortening Sticks: I’m lazy, and don’t like measuring shortening into a measuring cup (and washing the greasy cup), so I just buy the sticks. There is no dairy in the Crisco butter flavor, which is kind of awesome and kind of scary. I keep these in the freezer for making pie crust. It gives a nice buttery flavor, a tender crumb, and is inexpensive.
Spectrum Naturals Palm Oil Shortening: I love this stuff for cookies. Palm oil is similar to coconut oil in the way it behaves, without the strong flavor of coconut oil. Freeze it, and it’s impossible to use, rock hard. But it melts at body temperature, so this shortening will melt in your mouth. You definitely can’t do that with with Crisco.