It might seem impossible, but you really can substitute oil for butter in almost any type of recipe. Trust me, I’ve tested them all – sauces, spreads, cakes, pie crusts, and yes, even cookies.
When we went strictly dairy free, there weren’t dairy-free butter alternatives readily available at the grocery store. Buttery spreads as we know them today didn’t exist, and every margarine brand in my town contained some form of dairy. But I was determined to bake cookies. I must have tested dozens of batches before I finally created the perfect chocolate chip cookie with oil. Even with all of the vegan butters that have emerged, those are still my favorite cookies, and have been requested countless times by friends for parties. Everyone loves them. And today, I’m going to share my oil secrets with you.
You can Jump to Any Section in this Quick Guide with the Following Links:
- Why Oil can be Better than Vegan Butter
- An Essential Guide to the Types of Oil
- The Oil Substitution Quick Guide by Recipe Type
How to Substitute Oil for Butter in Almost Any Recipe
Oil works so well that I haven’t purchased a dairy-free buttery spread in years. No joke. I even make my own vegan butter from oil at home (recipe in Go Dairy Free if you have it!) when I want something to spread, or for making certain recipes even more special.
Why Oil can be Better than Vegan Butter
Butter isn’t always the easiest thing to replace in recipes. It’s a stable emulsion that generally doesn’t separate, and it sets up easily but remains relatively soft. It also has a fairly consistent taste.
Vegan butter alternatives are an option, but they don’t always perform perfectly, sometimes they taste off, they might have ingredients concerning to you, and most stores usually have just one or two options. And remember, they are made from oil. So if you’re trying to avoid “too much oil” you won’t be saving much by purchasing vegan butter or margarine. And vegan butter alternatives must be refrigerated.
Oil is reliable and shelf-stable, so you can keep an inventory of it stocked in your pantry. It’s not emulsified, it’s pure fat so there isn’t variation in composition, and there are no added ingredients. What you see is what you get, and batch after batch will yield consistent results. But it is important to know a few differences between oils.
An Essential Guide to the Types of Oil (Essential Reading!)
This section covers the general types of oil based on certain key properties for cooking and baking. I’m not covering the health aspects, but rather what you need to know for successful recipes.
Highly Saturated vs Highly Unsaturated Oil
Coconut oil and palm oil (often whipped into non-hydrogenated shortening) are the two highly-saturated, plant-based oils readily available in stores. They have a high percentage of saturated fat, which means they solidify at lower temperatures. These two fats help when you need solidifying properties like butter. If you want to avoid these oils, vegan butter alternatives aren’t your answer. They all contain one or both of these oils. You can experiment with cocoa butter, which is the highly-saturated fat from chocolate (yes, cocoa butter is dairy free). It can also provide richness and density in recipes, but it sets up very firmly and isn’t as easy to find in stores.
The highly-unsaturated oil list is much bigger. It includes everything from canola oil and vegetable oil to flaxseed oil, olive oil, and avocado oil. Since these oils have a much lower amount of saturate fat, they don’t easily set up, even in the freezer. They’ll remain fluid for all recipe needs.
Refined vs Unrefined Oil
Oil is often refined for two primary reasons: to make it more heat stable and to create a more neutral flavor. Most expeller-pressed oils have a very low smoke point, which means they will “smoke” when heated above that temperature. This is the oil burning, so you don’t want to reach the smoke point. Studies have shown that “healthy” oil which is burnt is more harmful to our bodies than refined oils. So you aren’t gaming the system if you buy a “healthy” oil and use it improperly. This includes baking.
Refined oils typically have a higher smoke point to make them more versatile in the kitchen. But smoke points vary from type to type. Check the bottle to see what the manufacturer has indicated as the smoke point. If you have a copy of my book, Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook, it includes a smoke point chart for various oils and more specific oil recommendations.
Naturally, oil also has flavor from the plant it was derived from. Walnut oil tastes a little nutty, coconut oil tastes a little coconutty, olive oil tastes rich and a little grassy, and so on. If you want a very neutral-tasting oil, then you might want to choose a refined oil. The refining process strips the pronounced flavors and scents from the oil. There are a few oils that I’ve found to be fairly neutral in taste, even when they are unrefined, including rice bran oil and grapeseed oil.
Making the Right Choice for You and Your Recipe
I’m not going to debate or judge in terms of which oil is healthier, more socially responsible, etc. Choose the oils that are right for your dietary needs, your taste, and your budget. But also keep in mind what you want in your recipe. Make sure the flavor profile of the oil fits with the overall flavor of your recipe. And pay attention to what you want from the recipe – do you need the firmness of a highly-saturated oil, or would that actually be a problem?
The Oil Substitution Quick Guide by Recipe Type
You can use the suggested oil amounts to substitute dairy butter, vegan butter alternatives, or margarine.
- General Stove Top or InstantPot Cooking – A 1:1 substitution will usually work well (1 tablespoon oil for every 1 tablespoon butter) in most saute type recipes.
- Sauces – A 1:1 substitution will usually work well (1 tablespoon oil for every 1 tablespoon butter) in most sauce and roux-based recipes, but oil-based sauces can separate more easily. If it does, just whisk or blend to combine before serving. Recipe Sample: Vegan Gravy.
- Bread, Muffins, Rolls, Cakes, Cupcakes – A 1:1 substitution usually works well (1 cup oil for every 1 cup butter). But you can reduce the oil by up to 3 tablespoons per cup if you want to keep the fat level the same in your recipe. If you do this, you can optionally increase the liquid by 1 to 3 tablespoons per cup. Recipe Samples: Wacky Chocolate Cupcakes and Vegan Blueberry Muffins.
- Pie Crusts, Crumbles, Biscuits, Scones, Fine Pastries – A 1:1 substitution with highly-saturated oil (coconut oil, palm oil, or palm shortening) works best. Use them in their solid or mostly solid form. This helps crumbs form and maintains flakiness. Unsaturated oil will usually work, but the results won’t be as flaky. Recipe Samples: Quick Shortcake Biscuits and Oil Pie Crust.
- Cookies (Oil Option) – Use half the amount of oil in cookie recipes that call for butter, but add liquid as needed. So if your recipe calls for 1 cup butter, substitute 1/2 cup oil and add liquid until the dough comes together and looks properly hydrated. I usually add about 2 tablespoons of liquid. If the dough is too greasy, add a little more flour. Recipe Samples: Sweet Potato Cookies and Snappy Molasses Cookies.
- Cookies (Shortening Option) – For a simpler option, non-hydrogenated shortening (which is whipped oil) performs very well in a 1:1 ratio for butter in cookies. Recipe Samples: Triple Chocolate Brownie Cookies and Classic Soft Sugar Cookies.
- Butter Brush – Some recipes call for butter to be brushed on before baking. This helps the top brown and enhances the flavor. You can brush on oil, milk beverage, or honey (for sweeter) with good results. For savory richness, whisk a rich oil (like avocado or coconut) with a pinch of salt before brushing it on.
No Bake / No Cook
- Frosting – For seamless results, substitute non-hydrogenated shortening (whipped oil) in a 1:1 ratio for butter. It performs very well, but some people don’t like the taste. I use homemade vegan butter (made with oils). You can use coconut oil, but it won’t be stable for long at warmer room temperatures. Sample Recipes: Coconut Oil Frosting and Maple “Buttercream”.
- No Bake Cookies – In most cases, the butter helps the cookies set up, so you’ll want to use a highly-saturated oil, like coconut oil or palm oil (or shortening). You can use a 1:1 ratio of oil (or shortening) for the butter. The dough will feel greasy if you use oil, but it will set up more normally when chilled. You can also increase the oats (or other dry ingredient) a little bit to offset this. Sample Recipes: Classic Chocolate No Bake Cookies and Raw Cookie Dough Bites.
- Fudge – Use a 1:1 ratio of oil for the butter, but be more specific about the oil. Use all coconut oil or palm oil if you want it to firmly set. If you want it slightly softer set, substitute 7 tablespoons coconut or palm oil plus 1 tablespoon highly-unsaturated oil for every 8 tablespoons (1/2 cup) of butter. Keep the fudge refrigerated. Sample Recipe: Vegan Maple Cream Fudge.
- Caramel – Use a 1:1 ratio of coconut or palm oil for the butter in caramel sauces, butterscotch sauces, and caramel-like recipes. Sample Recipe: Salted Caramel Sauce.
More Quick Tips
- If your recipe calls for melted butter specifically or ghee, you should be able to substitute oil in a 1:1 ratio with good results.
- For most sweet recipes, you’ll want to use a lighter tasting oil, but chocolate recipes, like chocolate cake, taste good with richer oils, like olive and avocado.
- Cocoa butter works well in no bake applications like no bake cookies and fudge, but you have to use less. It sets up quite solid, so you need to balance it with a liquid or highly-unsaturated oil.
For more butter substitution ideas, see my Butter Substitution Guide.