When I started to bake vegan, I thought the easiest substituting would be for butter. Earth Balance makes a vegan margarine and it seemed to be an easy swap. It looked like butter and acted like butter until I tried to bake brownies with melted margarine and made a chocolate blob. Then I realized that all fats are not butter.
Butter adds not only flavor to baked goods, but also texture. “Liquid oils can sometimes work in place of solid fats, though your end product might be a bit oiler. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, though a bit more solid than butter or shortening, so you might not get that flaky texture. … (And there’s) naturally fatty ingredients like avocados and nut butters.” I discovered recipes for brownies made with nut butters, and now I know that they can be the fat source.
After the brownie debacle, I searched for tricks with substituting fats. King Arthur Flour reports that “if you’re looking for a dairy-free fat substitute … choose a fat that most resembles the one used in the original recipe. For example, a recipe that calls for butter would be best made with a vegan butter substitute. For a recipe made with vegetable oil, you could use coconut oil in its place.” They tested this theory in a cookie recipe. Their favorite fat was butter, but I think that might be because it is considered the norm. Their next choice was vegan butter. They concluded that “since vegan butter was … soft at room temperature, we were able to easily beat the fat and sugar together (to help) keep the cookies light. The dough … was a little soft (and) when scooped onto the baking sheet, the cookies didn’t hold their shape. … These were a bit cakier and less chewy (but) the edges were crisp and golden brown, while the centers remained chewy and soft.”
So I learned how to make a great cookie, but was still stumped on what went wrong with my brownies. I got a hint on Earth Balance’s website. They recommend: “To achieve a rich, spongy texture in cakes and quick breads, don’t skimp on the creaming step. Beat sugars with Buttery Sticks … just as you would butter, until the sugar aerates the fats and creates a fluffy batter that will give loft.”
Here was part of my problem – my brownie recipe called for melted butter so I could not beat it with the sugar until creamy. I think when that was combined with the fact that the recipe had no leavener, then I was stuck with brownies with no lift at all.
Although there are several choices for fat substitutes, they are not created equal. If you can cream the butter substitute with sugar to aerate it you will get the best results in recipes calling for butter. Or you can experiment with other fats. Or you can follow one of my recipes and leave the heavy lifting up to me.