We all know about butter, the delicious cooking fat used in all sorts of applications, from pies to croissants to mashed potatoes. While butter is a mainstay for many, some choose not to use butter for a variety of reasons, especially with the rise of margarine in the early 2000s as an effort to move toward a healthy lifestyle.
Butter is made from milk, which means it is neither vegan nor dairy-free. Butter is also high in saturated fats, so those aiming to keep their diet filled with healthy fats (like those on the Mediterranean diet, for example) might prefer to replace butter with olive oil in a recipe. But can you replace butter with olive oil?
The answer: yes, you can usually replace that stick of butter/margarine in a recipe with olive oil. However, softened and melted butter brings more to the table than fats – there’s a reason your baking recipe calls for it.
Even so, there are ways to use olive oil in baking instead of butter: it’s about finding the right butter to olive oil conversion. Here’s the butter to olive oil conversion, how to replace butter with olive oil, and why you might want to.
Butter To Olive Oil Conversion Chart
We’ll start with the basics. When sauteing or frying, it’s easy enough to swap out the quantity of butter in favor of some robust extra virgin olive oil just by eyeballing it. However, there are other times when you want to be more precise.
As a general rule, you’ll want to reduce the butter by 25%. Why? Because butter contains milk solids and water in addition to fats. Here’s the butter to olive oil conversion table.
How Butter Works In Baking
When baking, butter does much more than add buttery goodness. It plays a number of roles. According to Paleo Pantry, here’s how butter gets put to work when baking.
- Hydration: Butter is made of 20% water and 80% fat. While water evaporates when cooking, fat does not. As such, the butter melts into the cake, or other batter, and delivers hydration to the flour.
- Texture: Butter traps air and releases steam as the water content evaporates. This creates a fluffy texture. Additionally – and this is important – butter can be creamed with sugar prior to baking, which creates little air pockets. These air pockets help the bake to rise.
- Structure: Butter coats flour in an oily film, which reduces gluten formation and weakens the structure. While this may sound like a negative, it actually creates a structure that is crumbly without being dry.
- Flavor: Butter imparts its namesake buttery flavor into baked goods -- think of that delicious buttery flavor of perfectly baked sugar cookies or brownies.
- Crust: As butter contains natural sugar and protein, it helps the crust brown and become more flavorful. Why? When these sugars and proteins are heated, they experience a chemical reaction that creates that beautiful color and flavor.
Why Might You Replace Butter With Olive Oil?
There are a number of reasons why a baker may choose to cook with olive oil rather than butter. Here are a few:
- Lactose Intolerance: Butter is made from milk (most often cow’s milk). Due to the complex structure of the molecule lactose, it can be challenging for some people to eat lactose. In fact, some people cannot digest milk products at all because they lack certain digestive enzymes. In fact, experts estimate that 68% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant.
- Perhaps you love the taste of a good EVOO. There are many recipes specifically designed to highlight the vibrant, peppery flavor of olive oil. (Looking for a place to start? Try this gluten-free lemon olive oil cake.)
- Olive oil has impressive health benefits that make your cake feel a little more wholesome.
- Maybe you just ran out of butter!
Butter vs. Olive Oil: How Do They Differ In Baking?
While you can swap olive oil for butter in many cases, baking is a bit more complex. It’s helpful to know which recipes are best suited to butter and olive oil (and why!) before you get baking.
Here’s a look into each cooking fat:
- Butter is solid at room temperature, has a higher melting point, and is stable when heated.
- It is used in delicate sponge cakes, pie crusts, flaky pastries, and cake frostings and fillings.
- When butter is creamed with powdered sugar, it becomes buttercream frosting, which can top cakes, cupcakes, muffins, and more.
- As butter has a low melting point, it causes doughs to spread more before they set. That’s why biscuits can be thin and crispy.
- Olive oil is liquid at room temperature.
- Olive oil has a distinctive flavor that can potentially overwhelm a dish, depending on the recipe.
- It is used in rich, moist cakes like banana bread and gingerbread.
- As oil cannot be creamed with sugar prior to mixing, you will need the help of a leavening agent to avoid a flat, dense structure.
- Things like biscuits do not spread as much in the oven, as oil is already a liquid when it is mixed.
How Does Olive Oil Affect The Texture?
In general, a baked good made with olive oil instead of butter will be more crumbly. Why? Olive oil makes it more challenging for gluten to form, which means the structure will not be as strong. The texture will also be denser, as butter traps air and creates air bubbles in a bake. That said, the texture will be rich and moist, like a decadent banana bread.
What Type of Olive Oil To Bake With?
There are four types of olive oil on the market. As you will see, some are better suited to certain recipes than others. Here’s a guide to which types of olive oils to use for baking.
- Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the highest quality olive oil on the market, with a distinct flavor. Cold-pressed, this olive oil may have an intense, spicy flavor or a more buttery flavor. The more intense olive oils are produced using green olives picked early in the season, while the more buttery olive oils are made with later-harvested olives. For many baking recipes, you might choose a less intense olive oil so it doesn’t overpower the flavors.
- Virgin olive oil is made via the same method. The difference is that virgin olive oil is allowed to have some minor flavor defects, whereas EVOO is not. As this is a rarer and often intense-tasting olive oil, this probably wouldn’t be your first choice for baking. That said, if you have it on hand you can certainly give it a try.
- Regular olive oil (or pure olive oil) is a more processed oil than virgin olive oils. It is made from a combination of refined olive oil and 15%-25% virgin olive oil. As such, it has a more neutral flavor and could be a good choice for baking with more delicate flavors.
- Light or extra light olive oil is a combination of refined olive oil and 5%-10% virgin olive oil. This olive oil is the most neutral in flavor, so it could be a good choice for many baking recipes.
Nutritional Breakdown of Butter Vs. Olive Oil
Some may choose to replace butter with olive oil for health reasons. This reasoning is not unfounded: olive oil is packed with bioactive compounds that are tied to science-backed health benefits. In fact, studies have shown that olive oil may promote heart health, promote skin health, decrease cancer risk, and more.
Here’s a look at the nutritional breakdown of butter vs. olive oil. As you will see, both are similar in terms of total fat and calorie content, with butter actually containing fewer calories than olive oil. However, olive oil is lower in potentially harmful saturated fats and higher in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats than butter.
In general, a tablespoon of butter contains the following, according to the USDA:
- Calories: 100
- Total fat: 11.5 g
- Saturated fat: 7 g
- Polyunsaturated fat: 0 g
- Monounsaturated fat: 0 g
- Cholesterol: 30 mg
- Total carbohydrate: 0 mg
- Protein: 0 mg
Olive Oil Nutrition
In general, one tablespoon of olive oil contains the following, according to the USDA:
- Calories: 119
- Total fat: 13.5 g
- Saturated fat: 1.9 g
- Polyunsaturated fat: 1.4 g
- Monounsaturated fat: 10 g
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
- Total carbohydrate: 0 mg
- Protein: 0mg
If you're looking to incorporate more olive oil in your diet – or simply avoid butter – you can often replace butter with olive oil. Yes, it’s a bit more complicated when you’re baking than when you’re sauteing. But with a little research, you can keep experimenting until it works. Baking is a science, after all.