Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Recipe: Homemade Olive Oil Margarine

If you're afraid of butter, use cream. – Julia Child

This photo was taken in 2009 I don't know where. 99¢!!
Must be good quality stuff... Photo: Peter Sunna, Flickr ccl
So I’m getting the hang of a lot of kitchen essentials that can save us money. Not only that, but also help introduce foodstuffs that are better for us to eat. I was pondering butter the other day (don’t ask why) and started to wonder why you couldn’t make your own margarine.

Lo and behold, you can! And quite easily at that. Except for the chilling of the oil, the entire process took 5 minutes—tops. Interestingly, looking into margarine made for a far more in-depth post than I was thinking at the outset, so bear with me. It's worth it.

As most of us know, margarine is a “butter substitute.” Sales have overtaken butter in most parts of the world. This is primarily due to the desire for more healthy eating habits through the reduction of "bad" fat consumption. But where did margarine come from?

1965. Photo: Roadsidepictures, Flickr ccl
A brief history of margarine
Margarine has a very interesting history. More interesting than you may imagine. For example did you know: 
  • In 1869 Emperor Louis Napoleon of France offered a prize for anyone being able to make a substitute for butter to be used by the army and working classes, which is its origin.
  • In Canada, margarine was banned from 1886 to 1948. Newfoundland found a niche market in making and smuggling it into the rest of Canada.
  • By the 1900s in the United States margarine was a regulated substance that had to be a distinctly different colour than butter, and citizens paid a hefty tax on its purchase. (Such was, and is, the power of the milk lobby.)
More can be read at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margarine

We all know that butter is supposed to be bad for you because it is high in saturated fat. OK, I agree that too much saturated fat in the diet is a bad thing. Saturated fat can be found in many food sources such as chicken, beef, pork, and of course butter. Believe it or not it is also present in many vegetable fats although usually in lesser quantity.

So you decide to ditch the butter for “healthier” margarine. Not so fast… keep reading. Here's where it gets weird.

Photo: Bernard Farrell, Flickr ccl
What exactly IS margarine?
Margarine is a semi-solid butter substitute made from vegetable oil, which on the face of it seems healthier than butter. Commercial margarine is made from hydrogenated vegetable oil. "So what?" you may say.

Well, the process of making margarine and margarine spreads is actually a bit of a nasty process. Commercial operations often/can start with cheaper, poor quality oils (that’s capitalism for you...). That oil is then "hydrogenated" to become a solid at room temperature using a nickel catalyst.

Read about hydrogenation here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrogenation

Hydrogenation actually alters the fat contents. The process also destroys many of the other beneficial nutrients present in vegetable oils. Preservatives, colorants and stabilizers are added to the final product as well.

During hydrogenation, liquid fats (i.e., vegetable oils) are infused with hydrogen atoms to make them semi-solid at room temperature. Unfortunately, the process produces trans-fatty acids, often in large amounts. A 1994 Harvard University study concluded that a diet high in trans-fat doubles the chance for heart attack and decreases life expectancy.

So margarine is off the list too. Or is it?

So must my toast always be dry?
The last time I checked my "nickel catalyst hydrogenator" was broken and I doubt they were around in 1869 France anyway. So I started to wonder about how margarine was originally made. In looking at recipes it became clearer. 

Margarine is essentially a "cousin" of mayonnaise, a vegetable oil whipped thick (but with no raw egg or acid) plus something natural to “stabilize” it. Stability’s a good thing. It helps keep the whipped oil from reverting to a liquid at room temperature. Homemade margarine will have none of the chemical stabilizers or other "modified ingredients" of commercial hydrogenated margarine.

It’s always nice to not only recognize, but also be able to pronounce, what’s in your food.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that margarine is a complete butter substitute or vice versa. As Julia Chid said “Everything in moderation…. including moderation.” So use butter too.

Margarine being made from the healthier plant fats (oils), are most often lower in saturated fats and contain no trans fats. Since most plant oils are nearly colourless, margarine is very pale. Over the years it has been coloured with varying agents, including food dyes, to more closely resemble butter. A healthier substitute is coloration with turmeric, which the following recipe uses.

Some of my margarine. Too thick to make in a blender.
Making margarine requires no special equipment except for one basic tool that most kitchens already possess. You need an electric food processor to pull this off. No amount of hand whipping will do it.

I often make mayonnaise in a blender, but I really don’t think that it would work in this case. The margarine thickened up more than a blender could handle, I’m certain.

I found this recipe on a food forum posted by someone called Dom. I know of one “Dom” who has an amazing site for making kéfir (see yesterday's post), and the introduction of kéfir in this recipe makes me wonder if it isn’t him. But I can't find this recipe on his site. If it is him, a heartfelt thank you. 

This was a good, fast and cheap recipe. There’s an old joke about a sign hanging in an auto garage that reads “Fast, cheap or good. Pick any two.” In this case it’s pick three. That’s a rarity.

Recipe: Homemade Olive Oil Margarine
1/2 cup skim milk powder
1/3 cup of water
1/4 (to 1/3) cup kéfir
1-1/2 cups of chilled extra virgin olive oil (or safflower oil, etc.)
1 tsp salt*
a pinch of turmeric or more or none (it’s up to you)

Turmeric adds colour.
Two cautions: First, olive oil is green so your end result will be green tinged, but that’s OK. Secondly, pay close attention to how the oil is whipping in the food processor. You can over-whip it, and it may not take the full 1-1/2 cups to achieve your desired consistency.

Dom’s directions: Reconstitute the milk powder by adding it to the water + kefir,* blended at slow speed, then add the oil a little at a time. If the mixture is still too soft, add more milk powder a little at a time until the mixture thickens.

Some practice may be necessary to judge the correct consistency. It will become harder once it sets in the fridge. So don't attempt to get the mixture to the ordinary spreadable consistency [of a commercial margarine], in its unrefrigerated state.

Tips : A little salt to taste may be included. 1/2 tsp should suffice.* If you do not like the flavour due to the slight sourness of the added kefir, omit the kefir [a sacrilege] and use 2/3 cups of water instead.

I have to say thanks to Dom again. This will be a recipe that keeps being made in my kitchen. 

* I found Dom’s 1/2 tsp of salt too little. Add 1 tsp of salt (or more) at the same time as the milk powder. Mmmmm, salt....

So what type of vegetable oil should/can you use?
Nutritionists often talk in terms of "good" fats (monounsaturated & polyunsaturated), and "bad" fats (saturated & trans fats). Here's a summary of the different categories of fats and where they can naturally be found.

Good fat – Reduces overall cholesterol levels, and specifically "bad" cholesterol, while increasing levels of "good" cholesterol. Found in nuts and seeds, avocados, olive oil and canola oil.

Good fat – It acts similarly to monounsaturated fat. Common sources fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout and sardines, and also corn, safflower, sunflower and soybean oils.

Bad fat – Increases overall cholesterol levels, specifically "bad" cholesterol. Found in animal-based foods such as meat, poultry and eggs, and also in butter, cream and other dairy products. Also found in plant-based products such as coconut, so-called "tropical oils" like coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil, and cocoa butter.

Really bad fat – Trans fat actually increases levels of "bad" cholesterol and lowers levels of "good" cholesterol. It is found in hydrogenated fat products such as margarines and vegetable shortenings. (Hmm, veg shortening sounds like another post...)

The following is a (selected) comparison table listing the fat content of various oils and lards. If you’re choosing oil to make margarine, you’re looking for lower saturated/trans, and higher mono/poly numbers:

Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 21

Note the only two items with ANY trans fat are commercially made margarines. None are found in animal fats. Makes one think, doesn’t it.


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  1. Youdon'tneed Milk powder and Kefir!Allyou need is a very good quality extra virgin Olive Oil(chilled)and a good quality High Speed Whipper or Food Processor and it willwhipthe Oil into Margarine(Spread)without adding anything else!!!!

    1. Hi jozeffrd. Thank you for the comment. Always appreciated.

      Kéfir is part of my recipe, but not others. I included it to have a boost of lactobacilli making the margarine a little healthier. It also discourages the growth of bad bacteria.

      Most recipes use milk powder as a stabilizer at room temperature, otherwise after whipping the oil will partly revert back to its liquid state.

      Come back and take a look at my post in a day or two. I'm going to be making "cultured" butter! I might have to make bread...